Study confirms dogs understand what you’re saying, and how you say it

oneinchpunch / Shutterstock
oneinchpunch / Shutterstock

There’s been a long-standing belief among dog owners that our furry little friends “get” what we’re saying, and are particularly adept at gauging our emotions. It will therefore come as no surprise to some, but science has finally confirmed that dogs understand human language a lot more than was previously thought. A recent study from Hungary, published in the journal Science, has shown that pooches use the same mechanism and brain parts to process speech as we do. Furthermore, they can actually distinguish what you’re saying, as well as how you say it.

The results were described as “very exciting and very surprising” by lead researcher Attila Andics from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, whose team worked with 13 dogs over a period of several months. Using fMRI scans, the researchers tracked brain activity in the animals as they listened to recordings of their respective trainers’ voices. They found that, like humans, the dogs processed words with the left hemisphere of the brain and intonation with the right.

“It is actually the very same part of the brain in this right auditory brain region that we found in dogs and also humans in an earlier study that responds to the emotional content of a sound,” says Andics. “It is not a mechanism that is only there for language stimuli, it is the same mechanism dogs use for processing emotional sounds in general.”

The study also proved that dogs understand positive words, and can distinguish them from neutral ones. For example, they exhibited heightened brain activity when they heard praise words like “well done” or “good boy” versus neutral terms like “however” or “nevertheless,” even when delivered in exactly the same tone of voice. “From this research, we can quite confidently say if they only hear you then it is not only how you say things but also what you say that matters to them,” says Andics.

The research raises important questions about how humans came to use language. It may have previously been assumed that the way we process speech, including the meaning and intonation of words, is down to a unique mechanism that we developed at some point in our evolution. But, as Andics notes, this mechanism appears to be present in other species as well, suggesting that our use of words was simply a new idea that humans ran with. “It is not the result of a special new neural mechanism but the result of an innovation,” he says. “We invented words as we invented the wheel.”

Getting back to the pooches, it’s extraordinary to think that we are not unique in our ability to separately analyze language and intonation, and that dogs can actually recognize words. While they may be incapable of replicating our speech or deciphering exactly what we’re saying, owners know that dogs understand us more than well enough to get by. But then again, maybe that’s no surprise — we’ve been socializing with them for thousands of years, after all.

Q: How well does your pet understand you? Let us know in the comments below.

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