How old is Bunny the talking dog? Here’s the Answer

Word Buttons, but Make It Science

In early 2020, about six months after Bunny learned “outside,” Ms. Devine was contacted by Leo Trottier, a product developer who works in the pet industry. He was hoping to work together.

In 2016, Mr. Trottier, a Ph.D. candidate with a master’s degree in cognitive science, introduced CleverPet, the world’s first game console for dogs. But after a failed attempt to raise the necessary funds, he abandoned the project.

Three years later, when Mr. Trottier discovered Ms. Hunger’s work, he saw an opportunity for collaboration. While Ms. Hunger and Ms. Devine were using simple prerecorded sound buttons they’d found on Amazon, Mr. Trottier was developing FluentPet, an A.A.C. device designed for dogs, and he was looking for beta testers. (Ms. Hunger had signed a book deal with HarperCollins around the time of FluentPet’s beta release and declined Mr. Trottier’s request to collaborate.)

Mr. Trottier reached out to Federico Rossano, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, to help him — in Dr. Rossano’s words — “science up” the project.

Dr. Rossano, a cognitive researcher who has worked extensively with a range of species, was skeptical at first. But he ultimately saw an opportunity to study dogs’ capacity for language-like abilities in a systematic, rigorous way, with the potential to draw results from a participant pool unlike any he’d been given access to before.

At the same time, Ms. Devine, whose jewelry business had slowed significantly during the pandemic, was given the further incentive to become an affiliate influencer for the product, meaning that she would receive upward of 8 percent of every FluentPet sale made through a referral link to the website from her Instagram page.

In June of last year, Mr. Trottier and Dr. Rossano started They Can Talk, a research project and an online forum for participants. “Initially, we just thought we’d have a few participants from across the San Francisco and San Diego area,” Dr. Rossano said. But after lockdowns began in early 2020, and TikTok’s popularity rose, thousands of bored homebodies began to wonder whether their pet could talk like Bunny, too.

Currently, the study has more than 2,500 participants. Buying the FluentPet product isn’t required in order to participate, but there is an incentive on the study’s website. (Prices range from $29.25 for a tester kit to $195.95 for a 32-button set.)

“We have a data sharing agreement,” Dr. Rossano said. “I am the scientific lead of the project, and the analysis and findings will be reported in scientific papers.”

To avoid a conflict of interest, Dr. Rossano is not being paid for his work on the study. Ideally, he would prefer for the research to operate as independently as possible from FluentPet, but a study of this size required the company’s sponsorship.

“I am a scientist and as far as I am concerned, my job is to assess whether these devices are revealing cognitive abilities that are novel and unexpected or whether this can all be explained through simple learning mechanisms common across several animal species,” Dr. Rossano said.

Is This Dog Smarter Than a Toddler?

Dogs have learned many tricks in the 20,000-odd years since they are believed to have first been domesticated. Most can respond to basic commands like “sit” and “stay.” They can recall terms like “treat” and “walk.” Some have demonstrated a rather human capacity for quickly picking up the names of new objects and storing them for future retrieval.

“Domestication is likely to have affected dogs’ brain positions so they can interact and socialize with humans better,” said Claudia Fugazza, a researcher in the department of ethology (that’s animal behavior) in Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. “They are probably more predisposed to interact with humans as social partners.”

All of this is to say, it’s clear that dogs can follow a wide array of human social cues. But outside of movies and TV shows, dog owners have seldom claimed that their pets possess the ability to speak.

“Bunny can now speak 92 words,” Ms. Devine said on a Zoom call in April, her dog just in frame and blending in with the fluffy rug beneath them. Bunny is almost 2 years old now, and her language acquisition might rival that of a human toddler. (The typical human 2-year-old can use at least 50 words with ease.)

According to Ms. Devine, Bunny can use the buttons on her soundboard to form four-word phrases. She can ask questions. She can, and often does, tell people to shut up — or, in the words of her buttons, “settle down.”

“For a long time, Bunny was talking almost exclusively about poop,” Ms. Devine said. “But toddlers do that too, right?”

With 6.6 million followers on TikTok and 818,000 on Instagram, Bunny has become the poster girl for Ms. Hunger’s canine A.A.C. movement. “Alexis is amazing at social media,” said Ms. Hunger, who has nearly 800,000 of her own followers on Instagram, most of whom seem to be there for the dog content.

Most of the dogs (and their owners) dabbling in this area — and there are many; just search the hashtag #hungerforwords — don’t have Bunny’s social media paw print. Passers-by frequently recognize her on walks. “There was one instance where a car did a U-turn in traffic and stopped in the middle of the road and rolled down their window to say hello,” Ms. Devine said.

Who is Bunny the talking dog?

Born in 2019, Bunny, or @whataboutbunny on TikTok and Instagram, is a sheepadoodle from Tacoma, Washington, who’s gone viral more than once for her talking dog button videos. You may have seen her express her displeasure with bathtime, love for scritches, and many “existential” questions. What is a dog? What is a human? Bunny wants to know too!

Meet Bunny the talking dog! Video shows how she communicates with buttons

On a sunny July afternoon, Bunny — a 1-year-old Poodle mix —had just returned from a walk with her owner in Tacoma, Washington. As she often does, Bunny was hovering around her language board, eyeing up the sound-making buttons.

The black-and-white dog then pressed a button, which immediately sounded the word “mad.” “Why mad?” asked Alexis Devine — Bunnys 40-year-old owner. The dog then moved to press the ouch button. Devine, skeptically, proceeded to ask: “Where is your ouch?”

After a few moments of hesitation, Bunny walked over to a new button. “Stranger,” it chimed. Soon after that, she sounded the paw button.

She called over her pet and began to examine Bunnys foot. To her amazement, lodged in between Bunnys toes was a foxtail – an invasive cluster of grass that can penetrate the skin of dogs and occasionally requires surgery.

“When Bunny told me stranger, paw, I knew that there was a foreign object there. I was able to look and remove it before it required medical attention,” Devine told Insider.

“Any time shes able to tell me shes in pain, specifically where shes in pain, Im totally gobsmacked,” continued Devine. “Its incredible.”

Devine isnt the only person amazed by these human-like conversations between a pet and its owner. 5.7 million people now follow Bunnys TikTok account, commenting their astonishment at the dogs apparent ability to communicate.

Quickly, Bunny and Devine built a dedicated fanbase. Just a month after setting up the account in June, they had accumulated over one million followers and tens of millions of likes.

Bunnys early viral videos show the Sheepadoodle using a handful of simple buttons to communicate with Devine. In them, Bunny presses love you and outside in an attempt to converse with her owner.

Christina Hunger, a speech therapist from San Diego, is credited with being the pioneer behind this innovative way of getting pets to communicate. Having been inspired by her work doing speech therapy with toddlers, she was eager to see if dogs could also similarly express themselves with words.

Writing on her blog, Hunger said: “When I brought my new puppy Stella home, I realized she demonstrated many of the same pre-linguistic communication skills as toddlers do right before they start talking, which is when I was struck with an idea!”

Hungers idea was to start using an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) board with her dog. The AAC device is an organized hex board of interlocking tiles, featuring various individual buttons that represent and vocalize specific words.

Relatively quickly, her two-year-old dog started using the device to sound out words and even seemingly form phrases up to five-words-long.

Devine, astonished by Stellas progress, “devoured” Hungers blog and purchased a couple of simple buttons for Bunny to try out. “I added a few more buttons with velcro to a plywood board and then kept on expanding,” she told Insider.

It was after that she decided to broadcast Bunnys progress on social media. Devine was then contacted by a cognitive scientist who approached her about an AAC prototype that was now being produced by FluentPet.

In exchange for the AAC board, Devine agreed to have Bunny monitored by a team at the University of California, San Diego.

The prototype was delivered and numerous cameras were installed around her living room to monitor Bunnys behavior.

Bunnys observation is part of the TheyCanTalk study, a project led by scientists from CleverPet and UC San Diegos Comparative Cognition Lab. Leo Trottier, Cleverpets Founder, and UC San Diegos Dr. Federico Rossano are examining Bunny to determine whether dogs can actually talk.

The research uses a scientific approach to determine whether, and if so, how and how much animals can express themselves in language-like ways.

Rossano, a linguist who had studied non-human communication with primates, was skeptical when first approached about the study.

Six months in, hes astonished by some of his teams observations. Rossano told Insider: “What weve seen is that once the dogs understand several buttons, theyre able to begin producing multi-button combinations. Were already seeing six-button combinations, which is, to be perfectly honest, more than I expected.”

Bunny, the star of the project, is one of 1300 dogs participating. “We also know that several dogs are using over 20 buttons,” he added.

Rossano continued: “Its very exciting to see and were now trying to determine to what degree those multi-button combinations are systematic.”

This isnt the only observation that has taken the TheyCanTalk team by surprise. One discovery wasnt even modeled for in the initial experiment but suggested that dogs might have an intellect that far exceeds current expectations.

“There are several instances weve seen in the data set where you have dogs referring to things theyre not familiar with using expressions that appear to convey some productivity abilities,” Rossano explained. “This is when dogs find ways to refer to things they dont specifically have words for in a creative way.”

Devine said: “One time on the beach, we saw a baby seal. Bunny was wagging her tail and looked so curious. When she came home, she pressed water and hippo.”

She continued: “Then, another time, we were walking in the park and saw a deer on our trail. She came home and pressed cat and hippo.”

Rossano reflected on this, telling Insider: “This is really creative. Bunny is using a combination of words that capture the features of an animals appearance. Shes trying to find ways to refer to things she doesnt have the words for in a creative way.”

Another area that sparked the TheyCanTalk teams interest is the “clarity” with which dogs seem to be able to share their emotions. Rossano said: “There are some dogs sharing their emotional view, whether theyre mad, happy, or in pain.”

“We didnt expect the kind of clarity that seems to be emerging in some of these situations,” he added.

This finding, according to Rossano, is potentially momentous. It could have a “humongous” impact on animal welfare and how we look after our pets.

“For me, a lot of the research is about trying to understand animal cognition to show that these animals are smarter than we have previously thought. They have emotions, abilities, experiences, and a life that is worth acknowledging,” he said.

Rossano continued: “Many animals are underappreciated for their intelligence and because of that, we do things to them that we shouldnt be doing — inhumane things. Through this study, were trying to enhance the wellbeing of dogs by making their needs more understandable to humans.”

Devine agrees. “I think there are some people who think of their pets as some sort of fluffy potato,” she said. “If after this research people can start looking at their animals as these sentient creatures with complex cognitions, it could completely change our relationships with animals. I think that would be wonderful.”

Taking part in the study has also changed Devines relationship with Bunny. “I think this has really strengthened our bond,” she said. “Bunnys a miraculous little creature.”