When we speak to our dogs, half the time, we’ve got no idea if they have a clue what we are going on about. Many dog owners talk to their pooches quite a lot, and wonder what their dog could possibly be thinking. Us humans have wanted to know what goes on in a dog’s brain when we are talking to them for a very long time.
Now a fascinating study has been conducted achieving something that’s never been done before, we can continue to learn more about dog’s brains and how they interpret what we say. A study which has been published in the Journal Science took place in Hungary and trained 13 dogs to voluntarily lie in an MRI scanner.
Us humans don’t always like going in for an MRI scan, so it’s pretty impressive that dogs have been trained to go inside of their own accord (probably coaxed with lots of yummy treats). Now that this has been achieved, it opens up a brand new chapter in canine/human communication.
These scans have found that dogs do in fact process language in the same sort of way humans do and they understand what some human words mean. These pooches also would only be satisfied is a praising tone of voice was used for the words that people used.
So how did it work?
The researchers encouraged the dogs (there were 13 of them) to go inside the scanners, and they were able to monitor what was happening to their brains when the researchers spoke to them. Pretty impressive stuff huh!
They conducted the research by speaking words such as ‘well done’ and good boy’ with a praising intonation, and got a positive response. They then repeated these words but said them in a neutral voice.
The researchers not only found that dogs process information in a similar way to us, but the right side of their brain deals with emotion and the left processes meaning. Apparently, for dogs to properly accept praise, but sides of their brain needed to recognise that they were hearing it.
What does this mean? Well, it seems to show that Fido knows what sound to expect when a specific word or message is given. So, when they hear ‘good boy’ for example, they know it should be delivered in an enthusiastic, high pitched tone of voice.
Lead researcher, Dr Attila Andics, of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest explains.
‘During speech processing, there is a well-known distribution of labour in the human brain. It is mainly the left hemisphere’s job to process word meaning, and the right hemisphere’s job to process intonation. The human brain not only separately analyses what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning.’
This is all stuff that human brains do, and Andics says ‘Our findings suggest that dogs can also do all that, and they use very similar brain mechanisms.’
They also found that dogs only experienced pleasurable sensations (in the reward centre of their brains) when they heard the words spoken in a praising tone. So, in summary, if you say positive words that are supposed to praise your dog in a flat tone, your dog won’t feel the reward from it.
‘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.’
This also shows that contrary to popular belief, dogs do understand some of the words that we say, and don’t just rely on tone of voice. They need to understand a word they know and have a nice tone of voice to truly recognise that they’ve done something good and feel the reward from it.
For example, if you are teaching your dog recall, you will get more of a response if you call them in an enthusiastic tone, and then praise them in a tone that shows they did something really good. You want your dog to feel some sort of a reward when they come to you, because they will enjoy it and want to continue returning to your side when called.
The people who conducted this research feel that it’s a stepping stone to interpreting how dogs understand human speech. Hopefully, in time there will be more studies like this, so we can discover more about Fido’s brain, and how best to communicate with our best buddies.
It’s important to note however, that this research shouldn’t be taken to literally. Yes, dogs understand certain words, and respond in similar ways to us, but that doesn’t mean they can comprehend everything we say to them. Lots more research needs to be done to determine how far their understanding goes, and how they reach conclusions about the meaning of certain commands and words.
David Reby, a psychologist at the University of Sussex who has also studied speech perception in dogs says this study ‘shows that dogs are capable of identifying strings of phonemes that form meaningful speech commands, rather than solely relying on the command’s intonation. It does not, however mean that dogs are capable of understanding human language.’
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting piece of research that’s worth delving into, and we wonder what further studies might show. What this study does show is that maybe our canine companies can understand a bit more than we have previously given them credit for.
Until further studies tell us more about dogs and how they interpret our speech, the best thing you can do is see how your dog responds differently to a range of words. Try saying some of their usual commands in a different tone, singing them or doing them without any hand signals, and see if your dog responds in the usual way or not.