29th Aug 2021
We all talk to our dogs… but what if they could talk back?! Well, Bunny the dog can, and she already knows 92 words and counting.
International dog day was during the week and while every dog owner thinks that their pet is the best thing to ever walk the earth, Alexis Verge can afford to be a little extra smug.
An artist and jewellery designer in Tacoma, Washington, you might wonder what sets Ms Verge and her dog, Bunny, apart. No, it’s not her quirky name or the fact that she’s a sheepadoodle (a cross between an Old English Sheepdog and a Poodle). Bunny is different because she can talk.
Anyone with a dog will know that we spend hours of the day chatting to our pups, most of the time as if they have any idea as to what we’re talking about. Turns out they might understand more than we realised though.
Telling the New York Times that she always knew her dog was “destined to talk”, Alexis drew inspiration from another dog owner she came across online. Deep-diving into the world of canine cognition, communication and training, her research led her to Christina Hunger, a speech pathologist who was using her Instagram account to document how her own dog, Stella, was learning English vocab.
Made possible by way of a soundboard comprising an array of different buttons, each one says a different word aloud when pressed. Teaching Stella how to paw the buttons herself, Christina was then able to show her how to begin stringing words together to form loosely formed sentences. The likes of “yes want beach” (meaning “yes, I want to go the beach”), “help ball” (meaning “help, my ball is stuck”) or “mad want look” (meaning “stop what you’re doing and pay attention to me”).
Thoroughly impressed with how well Stella was able to communicate, Alexis purchased her own soundboard off Amazon and followed the same training methods Christina had outlined in her blog. Now able to “say” over 90 different words (92 to be precise), Bunny has become somewhat of an internet sensation. Going viral on TikTok, she has 6.6million followers on the platform along with 818,000 others over on Instagram. She’s even the subject of a new scientific study looking into how animals, like Stella and Bunny, are learning to talk by way of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices.
The study currently has over 2,500 participants (including cats, dogs and even horses), each one with their own buttons. Cameras are pointed at the boards and the footage is sent directly to the lab where researchers comb through what they see to determine if there are patterns in behaviour or if it’s all random and confirmation bias merely does the rest of the work for us.
But it all comes down to personal connection for Alexis, who said “if she’s going out of her way because she trusts me and wants to engage, then I just know that she loves me.” Detailing one particular situation where Bunny used her knowledge to communicate that she was in pain, Alexis explained how she pressed the “ouch”, “stranger” and “paw” buttons, before stretching her paw out to indicate that something was wrong. “I felt between her paws and found a thorn in there. Anytime she chooses to communicate with me in a way that is not her natural communicative method, it feels really special.”
Discerning whether Bunny’s button-pressing is coincidental isn’t of as big a concern to us, who are simply amazed at the fact that a dog can learn how to speak to its owner in the first place.
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