When Bunny, TikTok's beloved talking Sheepadoodle, stared at herself in a mirror and asked "who this?" using her augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device's buttons, many believed she was having an existential crisis. Since then, the Internet-famous dog has seemingly only become more interested in her own — dare we say — sense of self.
More recently on April 24, Alexis Devine, Bunny's human parent, posted a video of Bunny pressing a button for "dog," then a second button for "what," a third button for "dog" and a fourth one for "is." "Dog what dog is?" Devine narrated.
"This is happening so frequently that I'm going to add the buttons 'animal' 'same' and 'different,'" Devine wrote in the caption which accompanied the Instagram post.
The canine Bunny, who has 6.5 million followers on TikTok, is one of nearly 2,600 dogs and 300 cats enrolled in a project called "They Can Talk." The study's aim is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through AAC systems. AAC systems, such as Bunny's giant labeled buttons that speak a single word when pressed, were originally designed to help humans with communication disorders. Yet they have been adapted to be used in language experiments with animals, such as the study Bunny is enrolled in, which is led by Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California–San Diego.
In Rossano's study, participants receive instructions on how to set up their AAC buttons for their pets; generally, pets begin with easy words like "outside" and "play." Pet parents set up cameras to constantly monitor the animals when they are in front of their boards, data which is sent to the lab so that researchers examine what they say.
Now, Bunny's followers have become obsessed with the notion that her language-learning is making her develop some kind of self-awareness. Is that possible?
And if so, does learning language have something to do with it?
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"The question here is, is this a behavior that has been trained — like, look, I'm going to show you this individual here, this is 'you' or 'dog,' and don't be afraid of it, and then over time the dog learns that," Rossano told Salon. "Or to what degree is this spontaneous?"
If it is spontaneous, the research around the ethology for canines could get really interesting. Scientific evidence has previously suggested that dogs don't recognize themselves in the mirror. The so-called mirror test is used to determine whether an animal has the ability of visual self-recognition, and is considered a marker of intelligence in animals. Elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins are among the animals who have passed the test, but dogs typically don't.
That might suggest dogs possess a lack of awareness of one's own self. However, separate studies have shown that dogs can recognize their own scent, which hints at the opposite.
Péter Pongrácz, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, was curious if the standard mirror test was sufficient enough to determine whether or not dogs have "self-representation" — which, as Pongrácz explained, is what ethologists prefer to call "self-awareness" in animals. This curiosity led Pongrácz and a team of researchers to study dogs' "self-representation" in a test called "the body as an obstacle." As a behavioral test, the dogs were tasked with picking up an object and giving it to their owners while standing on a small mat. However, the object was attached to the mat, forcing the dogs to leave the mat in order to lift the object.
"Dogs came off the mat more frequently and sooner in the test condition, than in the main control condition, where the object was attached to the ground," the researchers write in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports published by Nature. "This is the first convincing evidence of body awareness through the understanding of the consequence of own actions in a species where previously no higher-order self-representation capacity was found."
Pongrácz told Salon via email that the "body as an obstacle test" is more suitable for dogs, and perhaps, theoretically, could be for more species because animals are then forced "to negotiate physical challenges where their bodies can impede their actions." Pongrácz added that mental capacity is "complicated" and should be thought of as something that consists of "several building blocks."
"Dogs are large bodied, fast moving animals that live in a complex environment and they have a well-developed cognitive capacity, therefore it was reasonable to hypothesize that they would benefit from being capable of understanding that they 'have a body' that can interact with the environment," Pongrácz said.
"As our test proved this, yes, we can say that dogs are aware of their body, and as body-awareness is part of the complex self-representation system, yes, they can be considered as being self-aware," he added.
As an online spectator observing her, it is hard to deny that Bunny isn't becoming more curious about what "dogs" are, as she has been recorded wandering over to her word board pressing "dog" and then "what." Another time, she asked "dog" and then "why," which humans might interpret as her asking why she's a dog. Devine says on Instagram that this line of questioning occurs "regularly" now.
But as Rossano said, the tricky part is sussing out what is learned behavior and what is Bunny's own doing. And that's a separate question from whether the AAC device has influenced her sense of self. After all, as Pongrácz said, mental capacity is comprised of building blocks; language may be just another block.
"I think there's a good reason to believe that Bunny is probably capable of a sense of self and recognizing herself in the mirror, but to what degree is spontaneous versus learned over repeated exposures, I would say it's more likely to be the latter than the former," Rossano said, adding that "self-awareness" wasn't something they were interested in measuring at first in the "They Can Talk" study. But now, that's changed.
"We know that language helps not just communicate with others, but also helps us categorize and it also gives us some sense of consistency and continuity over time," Rossano said. In other words, self-awareness and language could be connected, as language gives one an ability to communicate a sense of self.
Rossano said a new, key interest of his study is whether or not dogs have a sense of past, present and future.
"The fact that Bunny asks some of these questions is interesting — but whether Bunny fully understands what 'why' means, that might be tested through phase three," he said. "As of now I can say there's good correlations that she might be understanding, but I would not want to bet my career on this."