Any dog owner knows how hard it is to leave their pup for an extended period of time. We wonder: Do they miss us when we’re gone? Do they know how long we’ve been gone for? Or even worse, do they think we’ve abandoned them?
The way humans are excitedly greeted by their dogs upon return — and the way many whine when we leave — suggests they recognize our absence, and mourn it. However, it’s hard to know what is really going on in a dog’s brain — perhaps they just miss the food we give them? — partly because we can’t really communicate with them.
Well, most of them. Alexis Devine is the human parent of Bunny the “talking” dog. Bunny, a sheepadoodle, has been trained to communicate using a sound board with large buttons keyed to different words. By pressing them in sequence, Bunny can relay basic sentences and sentiments — “Bunny sad,” or “where mom,” for instance. Though there is debate over the extent to which she understands language, most animal behavior researchers and laypersons alike agree that she is positively communicating and seems to understand what she says and hears back. Devine shares videos of Bunny “talking” on her social media accounts, giving the internet a glimpse into what it might be like to have a casual conversation with Fido.
Recently the beloved sheepadoodle has been concerning herself with the absence of people and animals in her life. And to answer the question about animals missing us when they are gone: if they are anything like Bunny, it would seem that yes, they are very curious about where we go when we leave.
Devine recently filmed Bunny asking her questions about Uni, Devine’s lost cat who has been gone for nearly four months. As Devine told Salon, prior to Uni’s absence, Bunny didn’t “talk” much about Uni.
“It was maybe like two months before he went missing that she had finally finally used the buttons, ‘Uni family together,’ which was a huge accomplishment because they had had such a tenuous and challenging relationship,” Devine said. “And then, last week, it was just heartbreaking, she pressed ‘cat bye,’ and I just about burst into tears. My little heart couldn’t handle it.”
It’s not the first time Bunny has appeared to wonder about some one or some animal while they’re gone. A couple months earlier, Devine’s partner Johnny was at work. “Where dad bye?” Bunny asked.
Devine said Johnny worked from home all last year because of the pandemic. He’s a high school teacher, and he’s finally back to teaching in-person.
“The first week that he was back at school in the classroom, Bunny was very much asking about Johnny, pressing ‘Where dad?,’ ‘Where dad bye?’ for a lot of the day, for several days in a row,” Devine said.
Bunny, who has 7.1 million followers on TikTok, is one of nearly 2,600 dogs and 300 cats enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk. The study’s aim is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. 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. Recently, they have been adapted for use in language experiments with animals.
Of course, as Salon has previously reported, it is unclear (scientifically speaking) whether Bunny has been trained to use specific buttons on her AAC device, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each, or if her communications are actually spontaneous. Through it, Bunny has appeared to report her dreams, ask existential questions, and now answer one of the most frequently thought of questions among dog owners: do they miss us when we’re gone?
Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, said in Bunny’s case it’s “certainly” possible that Bunny is missing Uni and Johnny.
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“Most social animals living in small groups or packs are aware that somebody is missing,” Rossano said. “This is most obvious in a mother keeping track of their cubs and going to retrieve one that has gone too far.”
Rossano added that in a pack of wolves, one might howl when an individual has been separated from the pack. It’s a way of saying “we are here,” Rossano explained.
“Dogs tend to form close bonds with the animals they live with (humans and non-human) that would be comparable to the forming of a pack (though it is unclear to what degree hierarchy is as important as in wolves).” Rossano said. “So Bunny’s behavior in those videos makes perfect sense.”
But of course, scientific studies are still pending. To date, not many have tested this precise hypothesis.
Yet there have been an array of studies that show that dogs do love their humans. For one, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained nearly 90 dogs to stay put so he could do a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan on their brains. In one of his studies, he gave dogs five different scents — their own scent, a familiar human, a strange human, a familiar dog, and a strange dog. Researchers found that the brain region associated with positive rewards, the caudate nucleus, was most activated by the scent of their familiar human; the study was published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2014.
In 2011, two Swedish researchers Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling performed a scientific study on 12 dogs to determine how they behaved before, during, and after an owner’s absence. They found that when an owner had been gone for two hours, dogs had more tail wagging and face licking compared to when the owner was gone for 30 minutes. However, after two hours, there didn’t appear to be much difference in the dog’s behavior, suggesting that perhaps a dog’s sense of time after two hours gets blurry.
Rossano emphasized that, while this study is often referred to, it only involved 12 dogs. There is room for a follow-up to answer some bigger questions around how dogs understand whether animals from their pack are gone or not, and to what extent they miss them.
“So much more research needs to be done to confirm this finding; there are also a series of clear confounds that any future study would need to address,” Rossano said. “Indeed, it is possible that the over-excitement after two hours could be due to a desire to obtain food or get out of the house or simply play with the human.”
In other words, Rossano said, “it is not that I know you have been gone for long and therefore I am nicer to you [but] rather, I (the dog) am now feeling hungry, or need to pee or am bored and therefore I am trying to engage with you, and if enough time has passed, these states might be reached independently of the dog’s awareness of how long the human is gone.”
Indeed, it’s hard to study what’s going on in a dog’s mind because we can’t communicate with them. But that’s part of what the study that Bunny is part of hopes to eventually accomplish.
“If the dogs could tell us how long a human has been gone, it would clearly help us understand their representation of time and how their memories are structured,” Rossano said. “This is why we are extremely interested in assessing how training dogs to use buttons and soundboards can lead to novel paradigms and findings concerning dog cognition.”