At 11 months old, Bunny the dog has already mastered commands far more complex than the usual “sit” or “stay.” The spunky sheepadoodle — a mix between an Old English sheepdog and a poodle — is learning to talk, and she can already use more than 40 words to express her needs and wants to her family.
Alexis Devine, her owner, is teaching Bunny to speak with augmentative and alternative communication devices, which are tools that are typically used to help people with verbal speech deficits communicate. “I was like, this would be something that would be so, so fun to try,” she told TODAY by phone.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, different forms of AAC are usually classified as either unaided or aided. Unaided systems of AAC are carried out through body motions like gestures, facial expressions and sign language, and aided systems incorporate some kind of external support from an object or technology.
Bunny uses a series of programmed buttons to communicate with her family, which means she is learning through aided AAC. Each button plays back a prerecorded word or phrase when pressed, and Bunny can hit multiple buttons in a row to express a thought or idea.
Devine — who lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband, Johnny, their two cats and Bunny — began posting videos of the dog’s progress on TikTok and has already amassed more than 1.9 million followers. She said she never anticipated the response she’s received because she just started sharing the videos for fun.
“It’s been a bit overwhelming, to be honest, I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” Devine, 40, said. “I’m rolling with it and trying to be as responsive as I can without burning out, and it’s fun how much support there’s been.”
In order to teach Bunny different words, Devine has to model how they are used in conversation. For instance, when Bunny was learning the word “outside,” Devine said she would press the “outside” button and say the word before letting her outside, and then press the button again once she came inside. After about three weeks, Bunny was pressing the “outside” button on her own.
Some concepts are easier to model than others, so Devine said she’s had to get creative.
“If I knew exactly how to model them it would be easier for her to pick them up, but it’s kind of putting puzzle pieces together, and without having a background in anything really related to this, I’m just sort of making it up as I go,” she said.
Devine was inspired to try her hand with AAC devices after reading about the work of Christina Hunger, a pediatric speech-language pathologist who used buttons to train her own dog, Stella, to speak.
Hunger became interested in teaching Stella to talk after she noticed that Stella’s eye contact, vocalizations and gestures were similar to the ones kids use before they can communicate verbally. Stella is now able to use 40 different words, and Hunger is writing a book so that other dogs like Bunny can learn to do so as well.
“I’ve seen quite a few of Bunny’s videos,” Hunger told TODAY by phone. “It’s really exciting. This is the reason that I started sharing Stella’s progress, and the reason that I’m writing a book is so that other dogs can learn and other dog owners can learn how to teach their dogs.”
The way that the buttons are arranged on the ground has had a big effect on Bunny’s speech and comprehension. Devine said she initially mimicked Hunger’s set up and arranged the buttons in a rectangular grid, but she found that in doing so, Bunny would only press the buttons on the grid’s exterior.
She decided to switch to a system known as the Fitzgerald Key, which was developed in the early 20th century to help children who are deaf learn how to construct sentences. The Fitzgerald Key organizes words by sentence parts like subjects, verbs and objects, and Devine said arranging Bunny’s buttons this way has helped increase her communication and improve her syntax.
However, many people — including Devine — are skeptical about how much Bunny can truly understand.
“I don’t know if this is real. I’d say I’m a hopeful skeptic,” Devine said. “I think it would be irresponsible not to be skeptical. Especially now that so many people are following our journey, I just want to be really transparent about that as much as I can.”
Even though Devine doesn’t have all the answers, she is determined to draw some real conclusions. She has begun working with scientists and experts to start collecting and analyzing data on a larger scale, and she hopes to ultimately identify some patterns and learn more about Bunny’s comprehension.
“I mean I started it for fun, but now that I’m involved with people who are scientists, that’s what’s really keeping me going,” Devine said. “I’m just sort of thoroughly enjoying the ride regardless of the destination at the moment.”