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Bunny, TikTok’s beloved “talking” Sheepadoodle, keeps surprising her followers. From asking for game dates with dog friends on their Advanced and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to asking existential questions, it seems that the more Bunny talks, the more insight we get into dogs’ minds.
As Salon previously reported, it is of course (scientifically) unclear whether or not Bunny was trained to use certain keys on her AAC device, a soundboard made up of keys each with a different word recorded on it whether their communications are actually spontaneous. While the videos posted on Tiktok by her human parent Alexis Devine are fascinating, a recent one sheds light on something scientists know little about: what dogs dream of. In the video, Bunny is clearly in a deep sleep, kicking her paws and making soft noises as if she were deep in a dream state. Devine wakes her up and asks: “What talk sleep?” to which Bunny replies via the AAC device, “strange animal”.
Is it possible that Bunny had a “strange animal” nightmare?
Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of CleverPet and HowTheyCanTalk Research, puts it straight: “We don’t know,” he says. The project that Bunny is involved in includes at least 2,600 animals – including dogs, cats, and a few horses. Attendees are given instructions on how to set up their AAC buttons for their pets, and their human parents set up cameras to keep animals under constant surveillance when they are in front of their boards. The data is sent to the laboratory so that researchers like Trottier can verify their statements. While Bunny is one of the most advanced subjects in the study, Trottier isn’t entirely convinced that Bunny is reporting her dreams back. However, he admits that he finds her behavior very “fascinating”.
First, before posting the aforementioned interaction on social media, Trottier said that Devine sent him several videos in which Bunny strung the words “night dog sleep” together – the morning right after she woke up.
“This seemed like a completely new combination of buttons that we had never seen before, so we were confused about what it meant,” said Trottier. “At the time, the most intriguing interpretation – I don’t know if that’s the most likely, but it was certainly the most intriguing interpretation for me – that maybe it was Bunny trying to communicate through dreams.”
Trottier said he suggested that Devine wake Bunny the next time it happens.
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“Bunny seemed to answer at first as if she had been asked the question, which is interesting in itself, and then she responded with a report that would match an alleged dream,” Trottier said. “Her behavior is fascinating and seems to be what we would expect if she were, but a lot of work would have to be done to find out if she even reports on her dreams or if she does something completely disjointed instead; and whether she dreams and whether what she supposedly dreams of is actually true. “
Technically, Trottier and his colleagues don’t study dog dreams, which would be very difficult. This is partly because not much is known about human dreaming, and the barriers to studying dreams are even more difficult in animals.
“In general, dreaming about animals is very difficult to question,” said Matthew Wilson, professor of neurobiology at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And that’s simply because dreams are based on the evaluation of memory contents.”
Wilson, who co-authored a groundbreaking study that found rats dream and repeat memories while dreaming, said much is known about the structure of dog sleep. For example, dogs experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a condition associated with dreaming in humans. In 1977, scientists studied the electrical brain activity of six dogs for 24 hours and published their results in the journal Physiological Behavior. They found that dogs were in REM sleep for 12 percent of that time, 21 percent of that time were sleepy, and 44 percent of that time were alert. They also spent 23 percent of their time in slow wave sleep, which is the deepest type of non-REM sleep.
“In rodents, rats, and mice, we can confirm that there is a trace of experiences during the day that are portrayed while sleeping in a way that is very similar to dreaming,” said Wilson. “So it seems that the experiences are being reproduced as they occur, not just snapshots, but the sequences are similar to films … they experience patterns of brain activity that look like the animals are actually walking the maze while they sleep would be responsible for pictures or seeing things in the waking state, they are also activated in sleep. “
Could it be possible that Bunny was dreaming of a strange animal that she encountered during her waking hours?
“There’s no reason to think that what you see in a rodent is any different from what you see in a dog or cat,” said Wilson. What is more of a mystery is whether animals have confusing structured dreams – much like when people dream of something they haven’t done in real life, like flying or teleporting. It is very difficult to study, because to do this one would have to communicate with the animal, which would have to remember its dream.
“The only way to check the content is to compare it to the brain activity that you actually experienced,” said Wilson. “So to a certain extent we can only see or recognize dreams that correspond to a waking experience.”
Wilson said he believed dogs “have all the ingredients for it” but it would obviously be difficult to study or prove.
In fact, researchers suspect that speculating about Bunny’s dreams may be a little premature as a result.
“With Bunny’s button there are more fundamental questions – for example, she even knows how to answer a question correctly,” said Trottier from CleverPet. “That would normally happen before you can examine Bunny’s dream reports.”