It’s not a secret that Bunny, the Talking Dog, has captured the attention of the internet.
In case you haven’t been doing a digital detox in the past couple of years, Bunny, TikTok’s beloved “talking” Sheepadoodle uses an augmentative communication (AAC), device to communicate with her human parents. Salon reported that Bunny stunned her followers by asking existential questions recalling her dreams ,, and wondering about Uni, her missing cat . It’s not just Bunny anymore. There’s also Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, who’s captured the internet’s attention by pressing buttons to communicate.
Both animals are enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk, which is seeking to better understand if animals can use AAC systems to communicate with humans. This project includes dogs, cats and a small group of horses. One peahen is also included. Participants receive instructions on how they can set up their AAC buttons during the study. Participants usually begin with simple words such as “outside” or “play” that are linked to their AAC buttons. Pet parents install cameras to monitor their pets when they are in front of their boards. Data is then sent to the lab for researchers to examine the data.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist
As social media continues to grow in popularity and the rise of talking animals, many might wonder: Can any animal learn to use an AAC device to communicate?
“Certainly when we got started on this, my expectation was that we would see that dogs would do surprisingly well, but I didn’t expect we would see that much in the way of a great performance from non-dogs,” said Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet’s system that Bunny and Billi use. “Dogs have evolved with us over thousands of years. They have been the subject of aggressive selective breeding. They are curious about us and look in our eyes when we talk to them. I was amazed at how well they performed. “
Indeed, as Salon has previously reported, Billi speaks up to 50 words. Trottier is confident that any animal can use the buttons, despite some differences in how cats and dogs use them.
” We have birds that use them. Trottier stated that although the evidence is not strong enough to conclude that the buttons are used by birds, I don’t think they should be dismissed. However, I believe the evidence for cats using them in an inherently appropriate manner is stronger than the evidence for birds. Trottier said that it seems like this is a surprising case, as many other non-dog species are able to do it better than expected. “
While Trottier admitted that he isn’t very optimistic about reptiles, the surprising discovery that a non-dog species seems to be doing better than expected with buttons raises questions about animals, language, and communication. Vocal anatomy is a factor in why animals can’t talk like us. They might not have the vocal chords, vocal cords or vocal flexibility that we need. According to a 2018 study published Frontiers in Neuroscience brain power puts humans at an advantage to being able to speak, too. However, animals can communicate in their own way or mimic human speech. A study published in 2018 found that orca whales can mimic the words such as”hello” and “bye.” A 2016 showed an oranguta