How Bunny the Talking Dog Is Teaching People to Communicate With Their Pets
Bunny “talks” by using customized buttons on a soundboard placed on the floor.
Whether you’re trying to have a private moment in the bathroom, or hanging on the couch for cuddles, chances are your dog already has thoughts about what you’re up to. And in the case of TikTok sensation Bunny the Talking Dog, she can tell them to you.
Bunny, who has more than 5 million followers on the social media platform, has stunned viewers with how she is able to string together sentences at 15 months old. Bunny “talks” by using customized buttons on a soundboard placed on the floor.
Each button “says” one word when Bunny presses it with her paw. They include words like “play,” “now,” “outside,” “yesterday,” and “poop.” The Sheepadoodle is able to respond to her owner, Alexis Devine, by tapping the buttons.
Devine says she got the idea from speech pathologist and fellow dog lover Christina Hunger, who taught her dog Stella to “talk” as well and is credited with popularizing the method.
“She was the first to use augmented and alternative communication methods to try and communicate better with her dog Stella. I devoured her blog, purchased some buttons and had one waiting by the door when Bunny came home. With zero expectations and completely under-qualified to be teaching my dog how to talk but I just thought, what an amazing gift this is for us to be able to hear our dogs' thoughts,” Devine told Inside Edition Digital.
“We started with an outside button by the door and I pressed it every time she wanted to go outside. I'd open the door, press the button, stay outside and within a few weeks she was using it consistently to let me know that she wanted to go outside, and at that point in time I was game on. I got a bigger board, started adding buttons and I was like, ‘Oh, this is so exciting. I'm going to see how far I can take it.’”
Devine says one thing that surprised her was when Bunny told her she had an ouch in her paw. The family lives in Tacoma, Washington, where there are plenty of foxtails. One had gotten caught in Bunny’s paw, and Alexis was able to remove it herself before it caused any other damage or resulted in a trip to the veterinarian.
“And those moments are phenomenal,” Devine said.
About 6 months in, the Tacoma, Washington native got in touch with behavioral scientists in San Diego.
At that point, they expanded Bunny’s button board, which is technically called an Augmentative Alternative Communication soundboard. It has now stretched to more than 70 buttons.
It was also around that time that behavioral scientists from the University of California San Diego got in contact with Devine so they could study what she and Bunny were doing.
“CleverPet is the company that produces some of those buttons. And so they were like, ‘What do you think about this?’ And my initial reaction was like, ‘That's great. A lot of these tools have been previously used with non-human primates.’ For example, Kanzi the Bonobo had used lexigrams to learn to communicate with humans. And so because of that, I was like, "it could be, but we need to be very careful and we need to be scientific about this," Federico Rossano, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego, told Inside Edition Digital.
Federico, along with his team at UC San Diego, is looking for more participants in their study of all pets—not just dogs—at Theycantalk.org, using Bunny’s same concept. Right now, the study includes dogs, cats and horses.
Just like Bunny, cameras are rolling on the participants 24/7, so they can collect all of the data they can, not just the highlights.
“Bunny seems to be going through a learning process that is very comparable to young children learning to speak, so kind of a toddler,” Rossano said. “And so right now, for example, Bunny produces combinations of four or five words [and] has a vocabulary of 70 words. And we know for example, that for young children around 18 months, that's when they start producing two-word sentences but usually they do that when they have a vocabulary of about 50 words.
“We're not trying to make them different from what they are," Rossano continued. "What we're trying to see is if they can learn something, and by learning this, now they can communicate more clearly with us things that otherwise we might never know they're even thinking about or caring about and so on. We see it as sort of a possibility for better interaction and communication with humans."
What Rossano says the study is already showing is how dogs are encouraging their humans to “settle,” or calm down.
“We have had instances where they have reported out, they will get riled up, for example by watching TV or by discussing with partners and the dog is trying to communicate, ‘Dad, settle.’ And those kinds of things become particularly interesting because what we know about dogs, and there's recent studies showing that, is that they're very tuned in into human emotions," Rossano said. "They can read facial expressions, they understand when we are upset. Their heart rate changes when they hear us crying.”
Rossano says the dogs who are doing better with the soundboard are those who are motivated by praise instead of treats. He also points out the tight bond Bunny and Devine share, which leads to more effective communication.
Devine says she is eager to see what the study unfolds.
“Well, I'm definitely fascinated to see what results from the scientific studies, but from the very beginning this has all been about my relationship with Bunny, me developing the strongest bond possible," Devine said. "And that continues to be my goal. I just want to have the closest, most connected relationship with her I possibly can.”
She hopes this will also encourage others to do the same.
“I also think it's a really unique way of spreading awareness and of people realizing that animals are sentient, that they have a lot more going on cognitively than we may have thought in the past," Devine said. "And I think some of the most positive feedback that I get on my social platforms is from people saying we don't ever plan to use the buttons, but your page and your relationship with Bunny have just inspired me to listen more to my dog, to try and understand what they're saying, to give them the space to respond, to think about different ways to communicate and to think about what they might be asking for."
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