I was feeling really emotional yesterday, because I watched the latest Bunny the Dog video.
Do you know who Bunny is? She is a sheepadoodle who has been taught to use a dashpad of prerecorded buttons to communicate. Bunny came hot on the heels of Christina Hunger’s dog, Stella. Hunger had released a number of videos of her dog using an AAC device to communicate, prompting Bunny’s mom to set up a similar dashpad and teach her puppy how to use it.
When Bunny’s videos started gaining traction, they caught the attention of University of San Diego’s Comparative Communication Dept, who subsequently set up a study with 700 animal participants. They plan to use the data to understand different aspects of interspecies communication.
Lisa Gunter, a research fellow at Arizona State University, thinks people’s outsized reactions to Bunny videos may be a reflection of our nervousness when it comes to fully providing for our companions’ needs. A dog with the potential to communicate with us in a new way could push us to accept that animals “have their own thoughts, wants, needs, desires,” she says. “I think that likely means that we’re gonna come up short sometimes.”
I’d say that’s a pretty succinct summation of one reason why I am feeling emotional. When I started seeing these videos, my first thought was how this could change the world of animal welfare.
Dog intelligence has only become a serious subject of study in recent years, when scholars like Brian Hare, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and his wife, Vanessa Woods, wrote about landmark discoveries from the Duke Canine Cognition Center and other research facilities around the world that show how dogs think, feel, and solve problems.
Another study, by Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, was inspired by his decades of work decoding the human brain using MRI imaging technology to use the same technology to decode the canine brain.
These studies gave us better insight into what dogs feel and how they think–they’ve taught us that dogs have the intellectual and emotional capabilities of a three or four-year-old child. But up until now, the only way to have a conversation with your dog has been through the help of animal communicators, or by learning to read your dog’s body language.
So, let’s go back to animal welfare: laws have changed over the years based on what we have learned. We have laws now against things that weren’t considered cruel in the past. In fact, there was a time when people believed that animals didn’t feel pain! Some modern day animal abusers long on ignorance still believe that nonsense, as, unfortunately, do some legislators.
Yet here is Bunny, telling her mom something hurts. . . and then attempting to explain it through her dashpad.  I don’t know about you, but I find that remarkable.
Think for a moment how a dog telling us where it hurts could help us catch sickness and injuries before things get serious!
In yesterday’s video, Bunny seemed to be asking existential questions. “What ‘love you’?” “Bunny what?” “Mom love you Bunny Why?” Questions that open up a whole new can of worms. . .for which I found mom’s answers wholly inadequate. But the possibilities for the future–they seem endless.
At the very least, we will be able to look at the world from their perspective, without relying on guesswork. They have so much to teach us.
Bunny’s mom did a one hour question and answer interview that was posted today on YouTube.
She talks about the training process, and how she modeled the buttons for Bunny. I found that one of the most interesting things discussed in the interview, is how Bunny has begun putting 2 words together to explain something she didn’t have a word for. (Like Koko the gorilla used to do) ie: deer=cat hippo Seal= water hippo seagull=water bird.
It was all I could do to not burst into tears tonight, watching Bunny’s newest video, “Contemplating Time.” And I had to examine why I am feeling so strongly about these videos. I realized today that it’s because of all the animal abuse I’ve seen over the past twenty years or so. The past two decades have shown me some of the most heinous treatment of animals you can imagine. It’s the circle I “run with.” People in rescue, who save and protect animals from mistreatment. Watching bunny, seeing her think and learn, and express herself. . . And knowing that they are so often treated like things, instead of conscious, thinking beings. It breaks my heart in two.