Saturday, June 26, 2021

Veterinary bibliotherapy: How Stella Learned to Talk

 (c) Anne Quain 2021

Imagine if your dog could communicate with you using words.

This post is coming to you live from Sydney, where an escalating number of COVID-19 cases have triggered a two-week lockdown. This is a good excuse for some veterinary bibliotherapy. This week I want to introduce a non-fiction page-turner, How Stella Learned to Talk.

As a veterinarian, I often wish I could talk to animals and ask, where does it hurt? What did you eat? (maybe even “why?!”). Even more, I wish I could talk to them and allay their concerns: “it’s just one needle” or “this will make you feel better” or even “just keep still for a moment and I will pull this grass seed out!”.

Enter Stella, a 3-year-old Blue Heeler/Catahoula cross. Her owner, Christina Hunger, is a speech-language pathologist with a special interest in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). She works primarily with toddlers who have significant delays in language development. She also has the patience of a saint, which helps.

It also helped her model the use of a home-made AAC device for Stella, who can communicate 48 words on her device and can create sentences 5 words long. Her favourite words are OUTSIDE and PLAY.

Christina noticed that, as a puppy, Stella met milestones of communication that toddlers meet, like crying to get attention, turning her head to a voice, maintaining eye contact, anticipating feeding and responding to a request to come here. She observed that dogs don’t simply respond to the tone of our voices – they understand some words (hence people spell out words like W-A-L-K if they don’t want their dog to get excited).

Christina asked herself what would happen if she implemented speech therapy interventions with her puppy? She did NOT ask herself “how do I get Stella to push these buttons to say words.”

Christina’s relationship with Stella is based on presuming competence (“treating from the fundamental understanding that everyone can learn, and everyone has something to say”), listening intently, modelling responses and trying new things.  Christina work’s with Stella’s intrinsic motivation to communicate – it isn’t a reward based system.

This is a fascinating, highly readable book, rich with descriptions of incredible interactions, like this one.

“When daylight saving time arrived in November, we turned our clocks back one hour. Stella showed us, once again, how routine based she is. Between 3:30 and 4:00pm, she repeatedly requested to “eat”. This would have been 4:30 or 5:00 before the time change, which was completely normal for her. But I did not want to feed her dinner so early and throw her off for our workweek ahead. I gave Stella a couple of treats to tide her over but kept saying “No eat now, eat later”.

Fifteen minutes passed.

“Help eat,” Stella said then barked.

“I know, Stella, good waiting. Eat later.”

Stella sighed. She stood still for about ten seconds.

“Love you, no” she said. Stella walked away, into the bedroom.

Imagine if your dog could “speak” to you like that?

Not only does Christina document, in detail and summarising at the end of each chapter, how she taught Stella to use AAC. She also explains how humans  learn to communicate, and how we use words.

For example, I had no idea that around 80 per cent of everything we say consists of a paltry 300-400 words. Core words are verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs. Fringe words are specific words that have more limited use. Thus EAT is a core word, while BREAKFAST, LUNCH or DINNER are fringe words.

One of the things that surprised me was that Stella did not simply produce a list of demands with her words. She used language to make observations, for example saying “water” when she watched Christina water her plants.

I don’t expect that this book is going to produce a generation of talking dogs, although there are other dogs using AAC around the world. Very few people have the patience to model words as much and as consistently as Christina and her partner Jake did for Stella. And Stella’s AAC is not available to her everywhere. Its not like a handheld device she can take with her on walks.

But the example of Stella, and Christina's book, may result in more people presuming competence in animals. 

This is a must-read for anyone who works with or shares their life with animals.

How Stella Learned to Talk is published by Allen & Unwin (RRP $32.99). (I just received an email from my local bookshop stating that the doors are closed during lockdown, but they're taking orders online and over the phone and postage is free, so its a good time to support local businesses if you can). You can follow Stella on instagram @hunger4words