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Are Dogs Really Learning How to Speak?

A dog named Bunny has become famous on TikTok for her ability to communicate using a series of sound-making buttons. But is she really ‘talking’?

Bunny, a young Sheepadoodle, approaches a hexagonal soundboard and presses her paws against a pair of buttons. They sound, “Dad poop.” Moments earlier, her (human) father had indeed pooped.

@what_about_bunny

Well, that’s embarrassing 😬#whataboutbunny #talkingdog #poopoo #funnydog #saywhat #dogsoftiktoktiktok

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Bunny has more than three million followers on TikTok alone, all of whom are watching affectionately as she allegedly learns to speak using a soundboard of more than 50 words and counting. Her owner, Alexis Devine, tells me that she was inspired to train Bunny to hold human conversations after watching the work of Christina Hunger, a speech pathologist who’s been teaching her Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix, Stella, to communicate using Recordable Answer Buzzers for more than a year now. “I was just amazed,” Devine says. “It just seemed impossible, like a dream.”

But what was once a dream quickly became a reality. Devine began training Bunny by placing an “outside” button next to their door. “Every time I’d go outside, I’d say ‘outside’ and press the button,” she explains. After pressing the button and saying “outside” hundreds of times, Bunny finally began pressing the button, too, seemingly whenever she wanted to go outside.

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Wait for it….😂

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Since then, Bunny has vastly increased her vocabulary, thanks in part to an organizational system known as the Fitzgerald Key, which was originally developed to help deaf children learn how to construct sentences (it involves organizing sentence parts by color). Devine tells me of a recent instance where Bunny used her buttons to say something along the lines of, “Bunny concerned stranger home upstairs look.” Worried about a potential intruder, Devine and Bunny went upstairs, looked around and found nothing out of the ordinary. They went back downstairs, and Bunny pressed the button for “Oops.” 

End of conversation.

There was another recent instance when Bunny pressed “ouch help,” then held up her left paw to show Devine a spiky foxtail lodged between her pads. “Those moments are pretty incredible, because it leads me to believe that this has the potential to sort of revolutionize veterinary science,” Devine says. “I just think it would be incredible if all of our dogs were able to say, ‘Hey, my stomach hurts’ before they had a massive cancerous tumor or something like that.”

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Someone had to go to the vet😥#HowTo #whataboutbunny #sheepadoodle #petlover #poorbaby #dogsoftiktok #plantlover #talkingdog #meetmypet #animallove

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Devine says the “dad poop” moment was equally fascinating, because “it means her learning has gone beyond just requesting things that she’s in immediate need of and to small talk. It’s an observation, not just a command.”

Now, while watching Bunny press these buttons is both impressive and adorable, even Devine has her doubts about whether she actually understands what each button means. There are many times, she says, when Bunny appears to be pressing random buttons, and even in instances that seem straightforward, Devine still has to interpret what Bunny may mean.

However, Devine says her videos have nonetheless spurred some interest from canine specialists. “It seems like what the dog says with the buttons often seems to need a bit of interpretation, or else something is offered to the dog because that might be what they meant, but the person wasn’t sure,” says Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “This is really charming, but so far we can’t say the dogs are talking like we are. To be able to say that for certain would require a lot of research on exactly how the dog is using the buttons. For example, do they always use a particular button to mean the same thing? If they combine buttons, are they paying attention to the order they press them? I’m sure we’ll get those answers someday.”

In the meantime, though, Devine says working with Bunny and her buttons has at least provided an unmatched bonding experience. “Before I got Bunny, my sole intention was to have the most connected relationship possible with her,” she says. “It’s not just an animal that we’re cohabitating with, but an entity that has feelings and needs and is constantly communicating throughout the day whether we understand it or not.”

For now, this sentiment is exactly what Todd hopes people take from these kinds of videos. “These videos of dogs pressing buttons to talk are really endearing, and it’s a fun thing to teach a dog to do,” she says. “It’s also really great to see people paying attention to what their dog wants and trying to provide it for them, because a lot of dogs aren’t given many choices in life.”

As for Devine and Bunny, their next step is working on the past tense. “I’ll continue to add buttons,” Devine says. “I’d like to take it as far as we can, as long as Bunny’s enjoying it.”

And from where I’m sitting, Bunny certainly appears to be having a great time mashing her buttons, whether she’s really talking or not.

@what_about_bunny

The cuteness😭 #whataboutbunny #cutedog #talkingdog #sosweet #communication #dogsoftiktok

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