At first sight Bunny the sheepadoodle looks like an ordinary dog – she enjoys playing fetch, loves dinner time and adores being cuddled by her owner, Alexis Devine.
But there’s far more to this pooch – a cross between an old English sheepdog and a poodle – than meets the eye. Bunny can talk.
Well, sort of.
Bunny is one of 1 300 pets being examined by scientists at the University of California as part of the TheyCanTalk study. And it’s safe to say she’s the star of the show.
Using an expanded soundboard mat with more than 70 buttons that generate words or phrases, such as “outside”, “play” or “I love you”, Bunny has found a simple way to string words together to communicate with her owner.
One day Bunny and Alexis (40), an artist from Tacoma, Washington, returned home after a walk.
The panting dog headed for her soundboard and pressed the “mad” button.
“Why mad?” Alexis asked, concerned.
“Ouch,” sounded the second button.
“Where’s your ouch?” Alexis replied.
“Stranger,” chimed the third button pressed by Bunny shortly followed by, “Paw.”
"When Bunny told me ‘stranger, paw,’ I knew there was a foreign object in there,” Alexis says.
Bunny then walked up to Alexis and placed her left front paw in her hand.
“I felt between her toes and felt a foxtail [thorn] there. I was able to remove it.”
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The board Bunny uses is an augmentative and alternative communication device –an umbrella term to describe speech devices, tools and boards usually used to assist people who are non-verbal to communicate.
Alexis has been training the two-year-old pooch since she was a puppy. Bunny first went viral on social media after a clip was posted of her pressing two buttons that distinctly sounded out “who” and “this”. She then walked up to a mirror to look at herself.
While the pair spend hours practising, Alexis is careful not to overwork Bunny.
“We’re a team, and I respect her boundaries. If she’s exhibiting signs of stress, then we back off and try a different approach.”
Bunny has an incredible following of 3,5 million TikTok followers and more than 800 000 Instagram followers – but not all the attention has been positive.
“A lot of people are quite sceptical,” Alexis says.
However she isn’t going to let the naysayers discourage her from documenting Bunny’s journey.
“I get so many wonderful messages, just saying how inspired people have been to take their communication with their animals to the next level,” she says.
The big question is: can Bunny really talk?
“What we’ve seen is that once the dogs understand several buttons, they’re able to begin producing multi-button combinations,” explains Federico Rossano, a linguist who’s part of the TheyCanTalk team.
The aim of the study, which was launched last year, is for researchers to determine whether and how animals can express themselves using language via a scientific approach. Six months into the research, Rossano revealed that dogs might have a far bigger intellect than expected.
But he’s also cautioned people to be “careful about what we think is going on. There’s a lot of risk about making bold claims”.
Until the research is complete, Rossano can’t draw any conclusions about Bunny’s capacity for language – but hopes the study will encourage pet owners to appreciate their furry friends much more.
Sources: Insider, The Verge, TikTok, CTV News, The Verge, HungerForWords, The News Tribune, BuzzFeed, Vice, The Wire, seattlerefined.com