Bunny & Her Buttons: Animal Cognition and Communication

4 min readApr 26, 2023


For the most part, I have a pretty standard TikTok feed: I get a few DIY videos here and there, a fair share of movie and show reviews, and a weird amount of instant ramen hacks. I never imagined, though, that I would ever watch a video of a talking dog. Alright, Bunny the dog doesn’t really talk — she uses buttons with pre-programed phrases to communicate with her owner, Alexis Devine. Still, that’s pretty impressive. I found myself watching video after video, fascinated by Bunny’s apparent ability to express her desires and thoughts through the press of a button. At first, I took these videos at face value, and simply assumed that Bunny was just an extremely intelligent, communicative animal. However, after some more research into animal cognition, I’ve come to believe that Bunny’s behavior may have more to do with her training than her ability to actually ‘communicate’ in the way humans do.

Let’s take a closer look at how Bunny actually seems to express her thoughts. On her incredibly popular TikTok page, the black and white sheepadoodle mix can be seen discussing a variety of topics with her owner, including everyday observations about the weather outside, her mood, and the people she lives with. For example, in one video, Bunny lets her owner know that she wants to be let outside by pressing the buttons ‘Now’, ‘Want’, and ‘Outside’. Her descriptions get much more interesting and complicated than this: in another video, she hears a dog barking outside and presses the buttons ‘Stranger’ and ‘Dog’. When she wants to go on a walk on the beach, she presses ‘Please’, ‘Water’, and ‘Walk’. Her most interesting video may also be her most existential: Bunny looks into a mirror, pauses, and then walks up to her buttons to ask, ‘Who This?’1 This example demonstrates the possibility of deeper, more complex thinking not commonly observed in dogs. While her use of these buttons is undoubtedly impressive, most experts in animal cognition are skeptical that Bunny is actually communicating in the way that humans do. On a fundamental level, dogs communicate in a much different manner than humans — they mainly use pheromones, body language such as tail-wagging or tucking, and vocalizations such as barking and whimpering.

Surprisingly enough, the concept of a ‘talking’ animal isn’t completely new. In the early 1900s, a horse named Clever Hans emerged as an animal-celebrity of sorts in Berlin, Germany. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, claimed that Hans could perform arithmetic, tell time, read, and even understand German. For example, when his owner asked him a certain question, Hans would provide an answer by tapping his foot. Hans traveled all over Germany, amazing crowds and drawing national attention.2

However, after Hans was put to the test in an environment where an official psychologist was present, he could no longer communicate in the way his owner claimed he could. The reason was this: rather than truly understanding and processing actual language, Hans was simply responding to cues from his owner. Instead of actually performing the mental tasks, the horse was watching the reactions of his owner and responding directly to involuntary cues in the owner’s body language. Hans didn’t actually know how to tell time — he was just acting in response to a certain stimulus, such as his owner’s facial expressions. As a result, Hans got the right answer 89% of the time when Von Osten knew the correct answer and the horse could see him, and when Von Osten didn’t know the answers, Hans got the correct answer only 6% of the time.5 The misinterpretation of an animal’s behavior as higher-level cognition is now aptly named the ‘Clever Hans Effect’. While Bunny may be a different species, her button-pressing behavior may be slightly similar to Hans’s hoof-tapping.

Animal communication researcher Federico Rossano acknowledges that it’s very possible Bunny could be pushing buttons by accident, leading to random presses that occasionally make sense to us. It’s also possible she may be memorizing certain combinations that produce positive responses from Devine, while not actually understanding what the sounds mean.4 There is an important difference between understanding what a word means in English versus simply having an association between a word and an action or reaction. As canine cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz puts it, “A lyrebird mimicking someone yelling ‘timber’ because they’ve heard someone yelling ‘timber’ is not themselves meaning to say ‘timber!’”3 Bunny has incredible perceptive abilities, but may not truly understand the actual meaning of the words she presses.

Even Bunny’s owner, Devine, says that she too is unsure of whether or not Bunny can truly ‘speak’:

“It’s really an emotional roller coaster for me…There are some days where I am so frustrated and I believe it’s all random and the skepticism in me overrides everything else. Then there are days when almost every single utterance is clean and concise and contextually appropriate and I’m like, ‘There’s definitely something going on here and it’s not random.”4

To say that Bunny understands English at a human-level is a stretch, and not a claim we can make with certainty just yet. While it would be interesting to continue studying the advanced abilities of animals like Bunny, I believe that there is also value in simply trying to understand the way dogs and other animals communicate naturally, rather than trying to make them adapt to our way of spoken language.

This article was written by Paru Nair, a freshman undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying cognitive science and was edited by Jacob Marks, a senior undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and NT@B Publications Co-Lead.




We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley