It’s well-known that some animals are capable of understanding language. Hanabiko the gorilla, AKA “Koko,” was famous for her ability to communicate through sign language. Dogs, of course, can respond to our commands, suggesting that they can understand at least some language. But they lack the vocal range to speak to us, and can’t use sign language like Koko did. It’s unclear if dogs can even think about language in the same way that we do. As an experiment, Christina Hunger began training her dog Stella to speak using a series of buttons, and the results are quite promising.
Hunger is a speech-language pathologist, and has plenty of experience helping kids communicate. A few years ago, she and her fiancé Jake adopted a Catahoula / Blue Heeler mix named Stella. Hunger was curious if she could use her professional skills to teach Stella how to speak, and set up a little experiment. She purchased a simple game buzzer button that could be programmed with a short audio clip, and that was large enough for Stella to push with her paw. This button was programmed to say “outside,” and Hunger would push it every time she took Stella out.
Before long, Stella started pushing that button when she wanted to go outside. That, by itself, isn’t particularly surprising. Dogs can be easily trained to do something like ring a bell when they need to go out. The question was whether Stella was capable of understanding and communicating more complex ideas. The only way to find out was to add more game buzzers for Stella to push, and see if she could figure them out. Hunger started slowly, with more buttons for “eat,” “play,” and “water.” Before long, Stella had a whole board full of buttons she could push.
Stella now has about 35 buttons she can press to communicate, including ones that represent more advanced ideas like “happy” and even her owners’ names. Many people are certainly going to question the results, but it sure seems like Stella is capable of using them. She can even combine words together, like “eat” and “play.” Some words don’t even relate to her basic needs. She will, for example, push the “bye” button when guests leave. While Stella can’t speak as articulately as Koko the gorilla, it does seem like she can communicate better than most people would think possible for a dog.