The first time Bunny spoke, it was like a light bulb turned on in her furry head. The two-year-old, black-and-white sheepadoodle didn’t speak in the traditional sense, but rather she communicated through a soundboard dotted with round recordable buttons. Each button has a different word associated with it, and when Bunny wants to chat, she simply extends a paw and pushes a button.
Bunny was just a puppy when she was first introduced to this communication method. Her new home was already outfitted with an “outside” button when she arrived, and her owner, Alexis Devine, immediately began modeling its use, hoping Bunny would catch on. But three weeks in, there was little progress. Then, one day, Bunny approached her button, looked down at it, then back up at her owners, then back down at the button.
“All of a sudden, she lifted her paw, looked up at us, and smashed the ‘outside’ button,” Devine recalls. “Her head whipped up, her ears went ﬂying, and she got this huge grin on her face. We went outside and celebrated, and that was sort of the start of it.”
Bunny’s communication skills have since developed beyond what Devine ever considered possible. Bunny’s button board now includes more than 90 buttons, and Bunny often strings together multiple words to form semi-complete thoughts. Devine pictures her as a little canine astronaut conﬁdently operating a complex NASA console.
Bunny knows her own name, and those of her owners and best doggie friends. Fittingly, her favorite words are “walk” and “play,” though she’s keen on asking others to hush, by saying “sound settle.” Recently, she’s even started tackling life’s bigger, more philosophical questions, like “What dog?” and “Why dog?”
Though Devine says she doesn’t have satisfying answers to Bunny’s most existential questions, the board still has served exactly the purpose she hoped it would. “My goal from the moment I decided to bring a dog into our family was explicitly this: I want to have the very best relationship possible, the best communication possible. What Bunny is doing is saying, ‘I have something I want to communicate to you. Let’s interact; let’s engage.’ That’s communication.”
Before Devine brought Bunny home, she did her research, hoping to understand canine communication from multiple perspectives. Along the way, she discovered Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who paved the way for Bunny’s language lessons through her work with her own dog, Stella. Hunger had experience helping nonverbal toddlers, particularly by using tools known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. When an eight-week-old Stella arrived and began learning and growing, Hunger was quick to notice familiar patterns.
“Really early on, I was very inspired by how much Stella was already communicating. She was using gestures to communicate, she was vocalizing, and she was using her eye contact to direct my attention toward something, which is a huge milestone in human language development,” Hunger explains. “I had this thought that if she’s already communicating in these ways that toddlers do right before they start talking, shouldn’t she be able to develop that next level of communication?”
Drawing on her AAC work, Hunger purchased Stella’s very first buttons. Like Devine, she started with just one: “outside.” And just like Bunny, Stella took a few weeks to warm to the idea, but Hunger expected as much; she says it can take children a while before they notice and use their AAC devices. Eventually, Stella began watching her buttons closely and even swatting them. In short order, Stella started combining words and from there, “her language just exploded,” Hunger says. Now Stella strings together five or six words in one phrase and uses her board to communicate about 25 to 50 times daily. On several occasions, her mastery of language has surprised even Hunger.
Take, for instance, when the button Stella uses to say “beach” broke. “When that happened, Stella said, ‘help water outside,’” Hunger tells us. “It was so incredible that she could communicate about that and ﬁnd another way to say ‘beach.’” Or another time, when Hunger realized Stella was using the button for “love you” in a whole new way: “She used to only use it when we were either giving her affection or she was giving us affection, but then she started using ‘love you’ whenever we would say ‘no’ to something. So, if she said ‘outside’ and we said, ‘no, not right now,’ she would say, ‘love you outside.’”
According to Hunger, Stella’s abilities and creativity — and occasional emotional manipulation — follow a similar development path as a toddler’s might, far surpassing initial expectations and not only contributing to Stella’s happiness, but also deepening the bond between human and dog. “Because of her ability to communicate with words and seeing her communication patterns, I know what’s really important to her,” Hunger says. “She loves ‘outside’ so much. She has so much to say about outside and just loves doing any sort of outdoor activity. I also have realized just how routine-oriented she is. She notices changes in her environment. She has feelings about them, and opinions about them.”
The same is true for Devine, who feels that this communication work has oﬀered a unique insight into Bunny’s world. “A lot of it is me taking the time to think about what Bunny is already telling me without the buttons,” Devine says. After a recent road trip, Devine noticed Bunny spending more time at her board, testing new word combinations. She tried to put herself in Bunny’s shoes to understand why. “Anytime I go traveling or I experience something new, it just opens my mind to so many new possibilities,” Devine says, “and it really felt like that’s what was going on with her, too. I ﬁnd that to be really, really endearing and really magical.”
Both Bunny and Stella have garnered internet fame for their ability to “talk.” Stella’s Instagram account has nearly 800,000 followers, and Hunger recently published a book on her pup’s progress, How Stella Learned to Talk. Meanwhile, Bunny has amassed an astounding 6.6 million followers on TikTok.
While millions of people are eager to witness Bunny and Stella’s progress, social media fans aren’t the only ones watching. Researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Comparative Cognition Lab are working with Devine to understand the similarities and differences between human and non-human-animal cognitive behavior. The researchers arranged six cameras on Bunny’s board that film 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Devine sends the data to the lab every two weeks along with details about patterns she’s noticed and any new words added.
The goal, at least in part, is to understand whether the words Bunny strings together amount to language. The study is currently in its first phase, so we don’t yet have an answer, but Devine has no doubt that Bunny’s buttons are a breakthrough in communication. “I’ve considered myself a hopeful skeptic from the beginning, and it doesn’t always make sense what she says,” Devine says, “but I think if people look at the bigger context of it, there is quite obviously communication going on here.”
Maybe Stella and Bunny’s buttons will illuminate major scientific breakthroughs about our understanding of the animals we share our lives with, but for both Hunger and Devine, that was never the point — it’s always been about knowing and loving their pets as deeply as possible.
“I feel like it just changes how we interact with our pets,” Hunger says. “We understand that they’re complex thinkers. They have their own minds, their own wants and needs. And just like you would with another human, you want to take all of those wants and needs into consideration as you’re interacting together.”
Devine agrees: “ This has strengthened my resolve that animals aren’t just ﬂuﬀy potatoes that live with us. They are these sentient beings with emotional lives that need a tremendous amount of respect. They deserve deep relationships. They deserve to have their needs met and they deserve to be listened to. They’re saying things all the time, whether or not we’re listening.”