Book Review: How Stella Learned to Talk

Earlier this month the always fascinating podcast Ologies hosted Christina Hunger, a speech pathologist from California, and what she had to say about dog communication was inspiring! She had observed parallels between her young speech pathology patients and Stella the puppy’s communication to the point where she decided to begin her own communication experiments with Stella, with amazing results.

Her book How Stella Leaned to Talk details her journey from observation to Stella’s steady acceptance of using AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices in the form of button presses, and Christina’s own interpretation of Stella’s communication. It was released in Australia on the 18th May and is widely available from local bookshops.

Emmett wondering if a) I’ll try to train him talk too and b) if there will be any treats involved

There’s so much to love about this book and something for everyone, particularly the dog and science nerds out there. It’s peppered with academic references for those who enjoy some not so light reading, but also describes in depth the striking similarities between babies/toddlers and puppies when they’re learning to interact with their carers and communicate their needs. At times I was unsure if the interpretations of Stella’s button presses were truly academic, or the result of a degree of anthropomorphism, but I chose to trust in Christina’s expertise with AAC devices as well as how well she knows Stella.

I’m looking forward to finding out if this has any implications in the area of animal research as Christina checked existing scientific literature and found nothing on dogs and AAC devices at the time. She’s made conclusions about dog perception based on how Stella communicates and it would be incredible to see this expanded with more dogs and in different circumstances.

Overall I would recommend this book to any dog lover, even if you’re not interested in training your own dog this way, although it provides all the steps needed to do so. It’s very easy to read, but doesn’t skimp on detail and is ultimately a brilliant account of human and canine relationships. I know my dogs communicate their needs to me and it’s made me think a lot more about what their interpretations of every day events are and what else they could be trying to tell me that I’m not noticing.