E215: Alexis Devine - "Teaching Bunny to Talk"

Known as "Whataboutbunny" on Instagram, Alexis has taught her dog Bunny to talk using talking buttons. Bunny has learned over 70 words, including concepts like "you" and "human."


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Lex Devine here with me to chat about her dog, Bunny, and how she's teaching Bunny to talk.

Hi Lex, welcome to the podcast!

Alexis Devine: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk about this stuff. To start us out, can you share a little background about you and about Bunny?

Alexis Devine: I'm a wearable-art designer by trade, and during the pandemic, things got a little bit slow for me. I had also gotten a puppy just a little before that, and decided to be as involved in the training process as I could.

Around the same time, I came across Christina Hunger on Instagram, Hunger For Words. She's a speech pathologist down in San Diego, and she was teaching her own dog, Stella, to communicate using buttons, and I thought that was fascinating. I was like, I would like to add this to my repertoire and to see where we can go with it, and we've been adding buttons ever since.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I think I saw on your site you taught Bunny her first button at eight weeks. Is that right?

Alexis Devine: Yeah. I had a button waiting for her by the door before she even came home. It was an outside button. As soon as she came home, my focus was building our bond, getting to know each other, and at the same time, anytime I would open the door and we would go outside, I would press the button and I would say the word "outside." Within a few weeks she was consistently using the button herself to let me know when she wanted to go outside.

Melissa Breau: That's so neat. You mentioned you wanted to be super-involved in Bunny's training. Have you had any training experience, or much training experience, before embarking on this project?

Alexis Devine: Zero training experience. I'd had a couple of dogs growing up, when I was much younger, wasn't very involved in any part of their lives, really. They were more family dogs than they were my dogs. I'd wanted a dog for so long in my adult life for so long, and it had never been situationally appropriate.

When it was, I was like, this is a mission now. I'm going to have the best relationship possible, the best communication possible. So months before Bunny came home, I started doing all this research. I looked into different training methodologies and decided I wanted to be a force-free trainer. And then I started studying training techniques and I was sort of on the fence: maybe I want to take her to a training school or maybe I want to do it myself.

And then as I got started, I was like, this is really, really fun, and what a beautiful way for us to engage and get to know each other and build trust. So I have been learning as I go, and doing as much as I can, and it's been a really fun and beautiful process, and I've learned a ton along the way.

Melissa Breau: How old is Bunny now?

Alexis Devine: She is just shy of 2 years. She's about 21 months old.

Melissa Breau: She's still a baby too.

Alexis Devine: She is.

Melissa Breau: What are some of the words you've been able to teach her? Have some been easier than others? Any particularly difficult ones?

Alexis Devine: Yeah, for sure. We started with words that were pretty simple to model." We've got "outside," which is pretty clear-cut. You've got a button by the door, you press "outside," you let them outside. It's like teaching a dog to ring a bell. Then we added, "play," which is another one that's super-easy to model and some of her toys.

And then we started working on some more abstract concepts, like feelings, like "concerned" and "love you" and "mad" and "happy." Now we're at very abstract concepts. We have introduced pronouns, we have introduced times of day, "yesterday," "today," "tomorrow," the word "is." Things like that have been a real puzzle to figure out how to model in a way that she might begin to understand them, and it's taken a lot of creativity.

I went into this having no expectation of success, because I'm not a dog trainer, I'm not a speech language pathologist, and I really had no idea what I was doing. But I found that Bunny really enjoys it, it's a wonderful way for us to engage, and as long as we keep it fun and interesting, she feels comfortable exploring and making mistakes, and we learn together through that, so it's been an incredible thing to watch.

Melissa Breau: I can imagine it would be pretty hard to convey pronouns if you're not actually listening to somebody talk. "I" and "you" …

Alexis Devine: Yeah. I don't have any human children, but I can't imagine how human parents teach children pronouns. It's so confusing when I think about it, and I start to imagine, like, this doesn't make any sense. How am I supposed to model this?

But we went on a weeklong road trip just recently, and we decided not to bring the buttons because we were going to be camping, we were going to be in pretty remote places, and it just didn't make sense. I was curious is this going to set her back in her progress, is she going to forget everything she's learned? What I found is that when we came back, she was more eager to explore. She started using her pronouns a lot, she started using buttons that she hadn't touched in a long time, so I thought that was really interesting.

Melissa Breau: That is really interesting. To take a step back for a second, I know you mentioned Stella in there, but what really caught your attention about that stuff? What made you interested in teaching Bunny how to talk?

Alexis Devine: My goal from day one was just to have the most connected relationship possible, and so I wanted to introduce as many opportunities to have that connection. I thought, I'm going to do obedience training, we'll do trick training, we'll do nosework. We'll experiment all of these ways that we can engage together and learn together and grow together, and this seemed like another natural way for us to increase our engagement and communication.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned teaching the "outside" button. What did that early process look like? What did some more of that early training look like after that first button?

Alexis Devine: After she got comfortable with the "outside" button and was using it regularly to request to go outside, we took that button and we added it to a plywood board similar to the one that Christina Hunger uses and started adding more buttons.

Before she was comfortable with all of them, I would be modeling one button at a time, getting her used to that in context, and once she was comfortable pressing one button to request "play" or "walk" or "outside," I started modeling two buttons. At that point I could model "play ball," for example, and we would play with the ball. While we were playing with the ball, I would model "play ball," "play ball," and "want to play outside."

Once we were comfortable with two-word phrases and she was using two-word phrases to request things, I would add in a third word. The more complex the word is, the more important it is to model it contextually with other words that she knew already, for example, "want play outside," because modeling the word "want" by itself doesn't have a lot of contextual meaning.

That's how I went about doing it. I think there are a lot of people going about this in very different ways and a lot of people having success, but that's how I figured it out.

Melissa Breau: When you say "model," do you mean pushing the button and then making the action happen for her? Can you break that down for me?

Alexis Devine: Yeah, exactly. Modeling would be pushing the button, saying the word, and then performing the action.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. How often these days are you introducing new words?

Alexis Devine: More slowly at the moment. We talked a little about my road trip and how much growth she's had since then, but before that she was at a plateau. She would go into the center of her console, which is like a little NASA console, and she would quite comfortably, with one paw on either side, reach the buttons that would fulfill her desires, and she wasn't doing a ton of explorations, so I slowed adding buttons, since she wasn't using all the buttons she had.

But since we've come back she's been so exploratory, she's all over the place making new word combinations, so I do have a few words that I'd like to add. It really all depends on her. If it seems to me like she's trying to express something but can't, I'll take a while to really think about what she might be trying to talk about, and maybe add a button based on that.

Sometimes the scientists that I'm working with help to inform what button I should add, because they think it could be really interesting for the study they're doing. I didn't mention this before, but bunny is part of a study that is currently going on at the Comparative Cognition Lab at UCSD, and there are over 2000 animals in the study right now. The majority of them are dogs, there are also a ton of cats, there's some horses, some pigs, a ferret, a guinea pig, I think a lemur, so it's a huge pool of data. It's going to be really interesting to see their findings.

Melissa Breau: What words are on your "up next" list? You mentioned there are a couple you're thinking about.

Alexis Devine: I just added "human," which is exciting. I'd like to add "hot" and "cold," because the temperature is starting to rise here and she's not loving it, and when we were camping it got pretty chilly and I could tell she was a little cold. So I would like to add some temperatures, I would like to add "one," "two," and "many," some numbers perhaps. I think those are top of the list right now, but you never know, because most of them are inspired by her, so at any time she could be like, "I need this button."

Melissa Breau: Some of the videos you managed to capture for Instagram are fun to watch and see how she's making use of her buttons.

Alexis Devine: Yeah, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Along that line, what are some of the more complex concepts that have surprised you that Bunny has managed to convey?

Alexis Devine: I think one of the most impressive for me, several months ago my husband Johnny and I were downstairs, it was evening, and Bunny was sitting with us. Johnny went out to go pick up some food, some takeout, and it was an unusual time of day for him to leave the house. As soon as he left, Bunny walked over to the board and she pressed, "we love you why went" and then looked at me.

That's crazy, because each of those words, in and of themselves, is quite complex. We've got a group pronoun, "we," we've got "love you," which is a shared emotion, "why," which is a question, and "went," which is a past tense verb, so all of those are mind-boggling in their own right, and then put together was quite stunning.

It was like, it's okay, Johnny just went to get some dinner, he'll be home soon. She went back to the board and pressed "dad bye" and came and curled up on the couch with me. I thought that was a sweet and impressive moment.

Melissa Breau: That's really pretty neat. She managed to knit all those concepts together.

Alexis Devine: Yeah, it felt pretty wild to me. And then there were several times last summer where she was able to tell me that she was in pain and specifically where, which is very impressive. We have invasive foxtail here, which is grass that has these awns with barbs on them. They can work their way up into animals' circulatory systems, and they require surgery pretty regularly in the summers here. A couple of times she went over to the board and she was like "paw ouch" or "help mad" or "stranger paw" and would come over and put her paw in my hand. I would go between her toes and find these thorns in there.

To me, that just feels incredible. If for no other reason, the buttons are helping me to intervene before she requires medical attention, and that's spectacular to me.

Melissa Breau: That is pretty awesome. We talk all the time with the vets that we talk about on the show how we can't tell when dogs are in pain most of the time. That clearly indicates that we can, with a little bit of different training.

Alexis Devine: Indeed.

Melissa Breau: Talk to me more about your gear. You mentioned the plywood board. It was where you started. I've seen on Instagram the setup you've got now, with these cool hex-tile-looking things and some buttons that sit into them. Can you talk a little bit about how you have things set up, and how you decide what words go where, how you organize things for her?

Alexis Devine: I, about six months into our process, came into contact with Leo Trottier, who is a cognitive scientist. He was creating a canine-specific AAC device and he was looking for beta testers. I was like, this is awesome, I would love to have some of my decision informed by science. It seemed like a great way to continue expanding the board, but not have it take up my entire living room, because these buttons are significantly smaller than the first ones I was using.

So that's the system we're using now. It's been through several iterations, and they are all grouped based on the Fitzgerald Key, which was developed in the early 1900s by Edith Fitzgerald, who was a deaf woman who wanted to create a way to teach deaf children grammar and syntax.

Each hex tile has its own word type. You've got people, places, things, and in this way, instead of seeing this giant mass of buttons and Bunny having to say, "I know the word 'mom' is somewhere in here," she can say, "This is the tile that houses the people, and 'mom' is in the center of that." She can compartmentalize where the types of words are to create ostensibly sentences in that way.

Melissa Breau: For those who are listening to this and going, "I want to try this," do you want to share where people can get look for some of those resources and for things like the buttons and hex tiles and stuff, where they can actually buy them?

Alexis Devine: The buttons and the hex tiles that I'm using are available through Fluent Pet. I have an affiliate link in my bio, but you can go straight to the website as well. If you're looking for the larger buttons, those are Luring Resources buttons. Fluent Pet also has theycantalk.org, which is an excellent resource for getting started. There's a lot of troubleshooting and crowdsourcing of information over there. I also have some "getting started" tutorials on YouTube you can check out. Christina Hunger has written a book that's going to be coming out early next month. So there are actually a lot of resources available to learn how to do this.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Any final words of advice for those who want to try teaching their own dogs to talk?

Alexis Devine: Consistency, lots of repetition, lots of patience, and I think it's smart to go in without any expectations. All dogs are different, and I think the best way to guarantee success is to really try and understand your dog first and to have great communication with them without the buttons. That's going to set you up for really great communication with them.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I didn't include on my list of questions, but do you want to share where people can go to see Bunny pushing her buttons and the social handles?

Alexis Devine: Oh, sure. It's What About Bunny on Instagram, Tik Tok, and YouTube.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Lex, and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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