A Novel Way for Dogs to 'Speak' to Their Humans

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog communication

Story at-a-glance -

  • A speech-language pathologist modified a device known as a Voice Output Communication Aid, developed to help nonverbal people, to help button-pressing dogs in a similar way
  • Keys on the alternative communication apparatus, or AAC, are labeled with simple words dogs can learn, then press, to convey what they want to communicate
  • Stella, a dog mix represented by two strong working and herding breeds, now reportedly has the communication skills of a 2-year-old human
  • The AACs come with a grid on a keyboard featuring several dozen pictures so users can choose the ones that depict what they want to convey and communicate verbally
  • Stella began learning how to use the AAC at 2 months old, but as she got older, her communication skills became more sophisticated and she often uses a two-step sequence of what she wants to get across

How many times have you wished your dog could communicate so you’d know what he’s thinking or experiencing instead of having to give it your best guess? Most pet owners have thought the same thing, and a new twist on an older technology has helped make that a possibility.

Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist in San Diego, developed an augmentative and alternative communication apparatus (AAC) that would, in essence, allow her dog, Stella, to express herself simply by pressing buttons she herself selects. Hunger’s day job involves helping very young children speak, sometimes using the human version of the device. According to Daily Dot:

“The device is normally used to help low or nonverbal people communicate. Voice Output Communication Aids work by producing recorded or digitized speech in response to keyboard input. For example, a user will select what they want to say by selecting a button on the keyboard, and that will tell a caregiver what they want or need.”1

Voice Output Communication Aids, also called speech-generating devices when they’re used for humans, usually come with a grid on a keyboard featuring several dozen pictures so users can choose the ones depicting what they want to convey and communicate verbally.

For dogs, the AAC is not set on a table but on the floor, naturally, and the buttons are large enough to be pushed by paws. Buttons on Stella’s keyboard grid include a button for her own name and one for each of her owners’ names.

Other buttons are labeled with both nouns like “food” and “ball,” as well as verbs like “walk” and “nap.” Beyond objects and activities, there are also buttons for the dog to push that convey emotions like “happy,” “worried” and “sad.” The buttons not only play a recording of the word when they’re pressed — repeated as long as Stella presses the button — they’re also color coded.

Hunger devised Stella’s board and started teaching her how to use it when the pup was only 8 weeks old. Stella began learning how to consistently use the AAC when she was just 2 months old. As she got older, Hunger explains, her communication skills became more sophisticated. Stella now often uses a two-step sequence of what she wants to get across.

Stella’s Mixed Breed Makes Her a Quick Learner

According to an article published in Nature Education, different dog breeds are recognized for having different tendencies, which result in both physical and emotional responses. Also, some dog breeds have been developed over centuries to emphasize certain characteristics.

The author notes, “Any dog lover knows that Labrador retrievers are friendly, Dalmatians are hyper, and Australian shepherds are smart.”2 Further:

“In addition to tameness, another unique trait of dogs is their ability to understand humans. For example, if you point or even shift your gaze toward a certain object (say, a jar that contains dog treats), a dog will likely investigate the object. Even our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, do not have this skill.”3

Stella is a mix of blue heeler, also known as an Australian cattle dog,4 and Catahoula leopard dog. “The only breed of dog to have historically originated in the state of Louisiana,” Catahoula is also a Choctaw word that translates to “sacred lake,” according to the American Kennel Club.5 The breed combination is a double whammy in terms of producing a working dog with a skill set that emphasizes herding.

Dogs can learn in several modes of training; spoken commands are one example, but hand signals or pointing gestures are another, and a device like the one Hunger created emphasizes how quickly dogs can associate meaning to words, even if they’re not spoken. In fact, some dogs learn to follow hand signals or nonverbal commands more quickly compared to verbal commands alone.

It should be noted that Vetstreet lists some of the Australian cattle dog’s most prevalent breed characteristics as highly intelligent, easy to train and playful. The Catahoula leopard dog is described as a “clown at heart”6 that can “soak up everything you can teach him.”7

How the Device Can Change Dog-Human Communication

No doubt, her abilities as a quick learner made Stella the perfect test subject for the button-pushing communication device developed by her favorite human. Hunger noted on Instagram one incident regarding her pup’s expertise, saying:

“Today when she heard some noises outside and wanted to go investigate, I told her we were staying inside. Stella responded by saying, ‘Look’ 9 TIMES IN A ROW, then ‘Come outside.’”8

Another time, Stella tapped the button designated “Jake,” which is Hunger’s fiancé known to single Stella out with much-loved belly rubs, and the word “come,” indicating she was ready for Jake to come home, then stood by the door until the desired belly rubs took place.

According to Hunger’s blog with the apt moniker Hunger for Words,9 she’s made sure never to pick up Stella’s paw to place it on one of the buttons to in essence “force” her to communicate something, which she calls “hand over paw cueing.” Instead, she explains, users need to be able to be in control of their own words.

She adds that Stella learned to imitate her human example as she pushed the buttons to initiate communication on her own:

“I watch toddlers develop these same skills every day in speech therapy. It was amazing watching nearly the same process occur in a dog. When I programmed Stella’s first button and modeled use of it by pushing it with my foot at the appropriate times, it appeared like Stella wasn’t doing anything for the first couple of weeks. But I was so wrong! She was listening and watching me.

Around week 3 of my modeling, Stella started intently watching me push the button. She would look up at my face, down to the button, and then up at my face again. That’s when I knew we were headed in the right direction … Observing the stages that happened before Stella said a word were just as important as observing her pushing the button for the first time.”10

Sometimes Stella’s proficiency on the communication soundboard is staggering even to Hunger. For instance, Stella doesn’t always feel like doing the same thing every day, and the communication she taps out on the alternative communication apparatus or AAC indicates it. One morning Stella communicated “Come eat play,” which is a pretty intelligent way of getting across that she wanted to have breakfast before going outside.

Hunger says she hopes her work with the AAC will allow other dogs to “speak” more clearly to their humans. Watching Stella’s expanding communication skills, she concludes:

“I’m in constant amazement and shock … Every day she says something cooler than she said the day before … I think how important dogs are to their humans … I just imagine how much deeper the bond will be.”11