Can any animal learn to talk with buttons like Bunny the “talking” dog does?

It’s no secret that the internet has been captivated by Bunny the Talking Dog.

In case you’ve been on a digital rehab for the past two years, Bunny is TikTok’s beloved “talking” Sheepadoodle who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate with his human parent. As Salon reported, Bunny stunned her followers by seemingly asking existential questions, reminiscing about her dreams, and wondering about Uni, the cat she lived with who disappeared. Indeed, there is only Bunny left. There’s also Billi, a 13-year-old house cat in Florida who caught the internet’s attention by pushing buttons to communicate.

Both animals are enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk, which seeks to better understand whether animals can use AAC systems to communicate with humans. The project consists of dogs, cats, a small cohort of horses and a peahen. In the study, participants are given instructions on how to configure their AAC buttons. They usually start with simple words like “out” and “play” linked to their buttons. Pet owners install cameras to constantly monitor animals when they are in front of their boards, data that is sent to the lab where researchers examine what they say.


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As popularity continues to rise thanks to social media and these talking animals, some might wonder: can any animal species learn to speak using an AAC device?

“Granted when we started I expected we would see the dogs doing surprisingly well, but I didn’t expect we would see so many great performances from non- dogs,” said Leo Trottier. , cognitive scientist and founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet system used by Bunny and Billi. “Dogs have evolved with us for thousands of years. We have engaged in aggressive selective breeding with them. Their behaviors are evident; they are very interested in us, they regularly look us in the eye when we talk to them. , they can recognize the pointing gestures that were shown last, so I was surprised how the cats ended up behaving.”

Indeed, as Salon has already reported, Billi speaks up to 50 words. And while there are anecdotal differences between how cats and dogs use buttons, the fact that a non-canine species is successful with them gives Trottier reassurance that perhaps any animal can use them. use.

“We have birds using them. The evidence for birds is quite limited, but I’m not going to write that off, but I think the evidence that cats use buttons inherently or in a contextually appropriate way is more stronger than for birds,” Trottier said. “But it seems surprisingly so that many species other than dogs seem to be able to do this better than expected.”

Although Trottier admits that he is not very “optimistic about reptiles”, the surprising fact that a species other than the dog seems to be doing better than expected with pimples raises new questions about animals, language and communication. The reason animals don’t talk like humans is partly a problem with vocal anatomy: they may lack the flexibility of the tongue to speak, vocal cords, or mouth musculature. According to a 2018 study, Frontiers in Neuroscience, brain power also gives humans the advantage of being able to speak. But that doesn’t mean that animals don’t communicate in their own way or that they don’t have the ability to imitate human speech. A study published in 2018 found that killer whales can mimic words such as “hello” and “goodbye”. A 2016 study showed that an orangutan was able to copy the pitch and tone of sounds made by researchers.

AAC devices were created to help people who had difficulty expressing natural speech. If the animals are having difficulty, is it possible that they also use AAC to express themselves? Indeed, this is precisely what inspired Christina Hunger, a speech therapist, who taught her dog Stella how to use an AAC device. There have been hints that non-canids and felines would successfully use an AAC – like a bottlenecked dolphin pressing down on a paddle to sing “yes”.

Trottier said seeing cats successfully using an AAC device “refined” the questions: “What was the impact of co-evolution? And what are the things that hinder the use of language by nonhuman animals?

Buttons, Trottier said, being similar to each other but slightly different could be a way to be something “language-friendly”.

“Because that’s kind of the way words are, words are those things that we share with each other that are both very similar, they’re just sounds, emitted by our lips, each on the others, but they’re also slightly different, right?” said Trotier. “And so it could be that the main obstacle to using language in non-human animals is – well, obviously there will be general intelligence – but it could be that language ability is somewhat independent and dependent on kind of a unique set of cognitive abilities that buttons can activate.”

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