Have you ever wished you could talk to your dog or even your patients? Imagine how much quicker appointments would be if you could!
If you’ve been on Tik Tok, you’ve probably seen videos of Bunny, the Sheepdog Poodle mix who uses buttons to communicate with her owner, Alexis Devine. The buttons have pre-recorded sounds ranging from tangible words like “Outside” and “Play” to abstract words like “Love” and “Mad.” When Devine asks her a question, Bunny can answer with the press of a paw.
According to The Verge, “Bunny’s journey started when Devine saw videos from Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who has been teaching her dog Stella to use a board full of buttons with words prerecorded on them.” This board is an “augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device” that is typically used for nonverbal individuals.
Bunny began training when she was just a puppy, and now at only 1.5-years-old, she can do what every owner dreams of: have a conversation together. Currently, with nearly 6 million followers on Tik Tok, 118.3 million likes, and over 70 buttons to communicate, Bunny’s profile bio on the app claiming she is a “Conversationalist” is actually not far off.
One of the most astonishing aspects of Bunny’s non-verbal skills is the range of her expressions. In a recent Zoom Q&A with Alexis Devine, she was asked how she goes about teaching tangible vs. abstract words: “The first two words we started with were ‘Outside’ and ‘Play,’ and those are pretty straightforward. The outside button was by the door; every time we would be going outside I would press the outside button, I would say ‘Outside,’ and Bunny and I would go outside.” She did the same with “Play” and repeated these processes constantly. “With more abstract concepts like ‘Love You’ and emotions,” Devine said, “for me, it was more a matter of capturing that in her. For example, ‘Mad’ or ‘Concerned:’ When I saw that she was in a state of emotional arousal I could use the button ‘Concerned’ to capture that emotion while I saw her expressing it and just modeled that consistently until she began using it herself.”
Not only is Bunny Tik-Tok famous, but her videos also inspired a new study conducted by Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego. This project by Rossano and his team aims to “use a rigorous scientific approach to determine whether, and if so, how and how much non-humans are able to express themselves in language-like ways.” The participants include a mix of over 700 dogs, cats, and even horses—this number is growing, probably thanks to Bunny, Rossano believes. He hopes that a large pool will help them determine if factors like breed or age play a role in learning speed.
By winter 2021, after analyzing videos of the animals “communicating” in their natural habitats with their owners, the researchers plan to conduct more controlled experiments in which they visit the participant’s homes to see if they produce the same actions with people who aren’t their owners. They hope the results will say a lot about how much is really understood by these animals.
Devine told the Verge that she remains skeptical about Bunny’s level of true communication saying, “I don’t think she understands it in the way we understand it at all really. Bunny uses her buttons all day long, but if she ever becomes disinterested in the buttons then that’s it, it’s fine. It’s all about our relationship.” Having said that, Devine still finds the buttons helpful. In the Q&A, Devine said that the most surprising conversations she’s had with Bunny have been when she’s in pain. “There were two times this summer,” she recalls, “where [Bunny] had a foxtail in her paw (that I wasn’t aware of) and she was able to tell me by saying ‘Ouch’ ‘Paw’ or ‘Stranger’ ‘Paw,’ then putting her paw in my hand, and I found it—frequently those will require medical intervention and we were able to avoid that.”
Ultimately, a lot more research needs to be done before we are able to claim that animals can fully talk to humans, but Rossaro believes that this study is on the right track compared to other studies in which dogs are taken out of their homes to be observed: “Dogs are enculturated naturally, they live with humans,” Rossaro tells The Verge, “This connection makes them particularly handy subjects in research, especially when it’s being conducted in their own homes.
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