TACOMA, Wash. — Bunny, a one year old Sheepadoodle, a mix between an Old English sheepdog and a poodle, is already well beyond mastering commands like "Sit!' and 'Stay!".
Bunny is learning to talk. And three million Tik Tok followers are tuning in to watch.
“It's bonkers yeah,” says Alexis Divine. “I definitely did not expect that, but it's fun.”
Inspired by speech pathologist Christina Hunger's work with her dog Stella, Devine is teaching Bunny using augmentative and alternative communication devices.
“It's a way for nonverbal people to communicate using buttons,” says Devine.
It all began weeks after Devine and her husband brought Bunny home. With a single button for “outside”.
“Anytime she wanted to go outside or I was planning on letting her outside, I would say the word ‘outside’ and I would press the outside button,” Devine says. “And then I would let her outside. And then when she came back in I would say ‘all done outside’ and press the outside button again.
It has taken a lot of repetition and reinforcement but Devine believes Bunny associates that button --and others --with their actual meaning.
Bunny now has a soundboard made up of more than 50 words.
She will press the button labelled “Scritches” when she wants to get her ears scratched.
Devine isn’t trying to convince anyone her dog can talk.
“I think it is an excellent example of operant conditioning,” she says. “She builds an association with an individual button or a combination of buttons. I don't think it's language but I definitely believe that she is communicating.”
Cognitive scientists are definitely intrigued. Bunny is the subject of a study by UC San Diego. There are three cameras always trained on her soundboard. During our interview, Bunny pressed two buttons. “Play” and “Friend”.
That’s how I wound up talking a break to play “hide the hippo”, a squeak toy Bunny likes to go burrowing under couch cushions to find.
Bunny is a good girl, super smart and affectionate. But how much is this Bunny talking and how much is this conditioning?
While scientists try to figure that out, Bunny and Alexis have at the very least inspired people to interact more with their dogs
“If people are taking away from this that they want to have a deeper connection with their dog, I think that's amazing,” Devine says.