Talking Dogs: Learning and Communication regardless of species

Every kid grows up wanting super powers or special abilities. When I was a kid, I wanted the ability to speak to and understand animals. I just needed to teach my beloved pets how to do it.  Well, my dream may be coming true!  I realized this very learning is (successfully) occurring right before our eyes when I discovered whataboutbunny on TikTok. My first introduction to this learning phenomenon, was a dog having an existential crisis. 

Standing by her vast array of audio buttons on the floor, Bunny the “sheepadoodle” decided to hit the button that says who, followed by the button saying this. She then padded to the mirror on the ground a few steps away, and gave herself a look. Her owner gasps and reiterates what was just said. “Did you just say ‘who this?’ and then look in the mirror?” The owner presses the who and this buttons, and then states, “That’s Bunny,” while hitting the button that says Bunny. Bunny listens, then goes to stare out the windowed door for a few sped up seconds while she processes. Bunny then returns to the board to hit the button that says help.

(Here’s the video, if you’d like to check it out for yourself! Bunny: Bringing you existential content since dogs could talk)

The Story of Two Dogs:  Bunny and Stella

After seeing this, I had to see more, so I did a deep-dive. The TikTok account currently has 7.1 million followers and over 168 million likes and was started by Bunny’s furr-mom, Alexis Devine. Devine was inspired to study speech pathology and how it’s taught to dogs by the first known person to pioneer it, Christina Hunger and her dog Stella. Hunger had been recording their foray into speech education on her Instagram account hunger4words. Hunger’s job requires her to help toddlers with speech and developmental delays communicate using Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC. Alternative means to speech could be writing, drawing, sign language, or in this case, audible buttons that say a word when pressed.  

In the past, the common practice of speech pathologists was to simplify and minimize the words presented to a nonverbal individual via their AAC device. It was believed that too many words might overwhelm the individual, however the opposite effect has been seen. Some AAC experts are starting to give their patients more and more words with which to work, and are seeing just how well the human brain can communicate and understand, despite the lack of speech. These findings make sense with what we already know when it comes to humans’ learning language; babies can understand words and language long before they are able to speak them. This circumstance is presented again later in life when we begin to tackle a second language in school. The brain is quick to understand language, but slow to create it on its own. Or in a dog’s case, it lacks the organs necessary to speak it. 

Hunger realized through her work that if Stella can recognize common (and exciting) words like walk or treat, then why couldn’t she be taught other words using AAC? Her, now over 800,000, followers can see the miraculous discovery she made, including Devine. Devine started studying Hunger’s research so that when she got Bunny in October of 2019, she could start learning how to communicate. Bunny, as of April 2021, knows 92 words and can string together not only coherent sentences, but existential ponderings. Devine has taught Bunny how to utilize nouns like outside, park, and walk, as well as complex nouns such as I, you, this, that, and many more. Devine continues to push Bunny’s learning as far as it will go, providing her new challenges and buttons week after week. In addition to understanding how to use verbs like is, went, and come, this dog knows emotions such as concerned, ouch, and love you. In other TikTok videos, Bunny has asked: Why?, Where Dad?, and even Why Do? when her new puppy sibling chaotically attacks her blanket on the couch.  

With this new method of communication, Bunny has been able to recognize her reflection as herself, and many other aspects about her existence (including her species) that before now, most animals have not been able to comprehend. This progress in the science of learning has provided many insights into the larger capabilities and capacities for learning, even across species! We have so much more to discover about learning itself.

Kelsey Alter

If people can teach dogs how to communicate, what more can you do to help your employees learn new things?  Training and learning are changing every day and Orgwide can help you maximize the advancements.  And who knows— maybe an old dog could teach YOU a new trick. 

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