Can dogs understand what we are saying after all?

September 02, 2016

A new study shows that humans and dogs may not be so different after all — at least when it comes to understanding language. Researchers discovered this by training 13 dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging machine and lie in a harness while the machine recorded their brain activity.

At the same time, a trainer spoke words in Hungarian — common words of praise used by dog owners like “good boy,” “super” and “well done.” The trainer also tried neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.” Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.

What they found was that the positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted strong activity in the brain’s reward centers. All the other conditions resulted in significantly less action, and all at the same level.

“Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and participant in the study. For example, “good boy” said in a neutral tone and “however” said in a positive or neutral tone all got the same response.

So what does it all mean? Andics explains this means dogs are paying attention to meaning, and that you should, too.

"Dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant," Andics said.

That doesn’t mean a dog won’t wag its tail and look happy when you say, “You stinky mess” in a happy voice. But the dog is looking at your body language and your eyes, and perhaps starting to infer that “stinky mess” is a word of praise.

In terms of evolution of language, the results suggest that the capacity to process meaning and emotion in different parts of the brain and tie them together is not uniquely human. This ability had already evolved in non-primates long before humans began to talk.

Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who was not involved in the study, said that specialization of right and left hemispheres in processing information began to evolve well before human language. But, he said in the article, it was still possible that dogs had independently evolved a similar brain organization.

Dr. Hare, who studies both dogs and primates, and specializes in cognitive neuroscience and evolution, also pointed out that the dogs could leave the experiment at any time. “They were volunteers as much as is possible with animals.” Primates, he said, cannot be trained to undergo MRI scans willingly.

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To watch a video on how dog brains process speech, click here.