Dogs are brilliant animals, and it has long been a wonder to think about whether or not they can actually, truly understand what you’re saying to them on a daily basis. New research may finally shed light on this long-standing mystery.
To better understand how dogs’ brains worked when presented with certain kinds of words from their owners, researchers trained dogs to lie still inside of fMRI machines while their owners talked to them in varying tones using different kinds of word contexts. Here, they could measure activity in the dogs' brains.
Image Credit: Enik Kubinyi
The findings, published in the journal Science, reveal that dogs have an innate ability to not only differentiate between certain words from their owners, but also differentiate between different tones of speaking, such as when angry versus excited and praising.
For example, when we’re talking to our dogs in a praising context, we tend to speak in a higher-pitched voice and use gentler words, while on the other hand, when we’re upset, we tend to raise our voice in a condescending manner. This is known as intonation.
It was found from the fMRI tests found that dogs used the left hemisphere of their brains to understand word meaning, and on the contrary, seemed to use the right hemisphere of their brains to understand word intonation.
Going further, dogs’ brains activated the “reward center” when they were being spoken to in a praising context. This is the same “reward center” that activates when they are given treats, partake in sex, and when being petted. This finding alone seems to confirm a recent study that proposed dogs prefer your attention over treats.
Overall, the findings appear to illustrate how dogs have a very similar word interpretation system in their brains to humans. It seems that although we are the inventors of spoken words, it’s possible for not only humans, but also dogs to learn to understand that very same speech.
The next time you have a conversation with your dog, remember that good or bad, there’s a very good chance that while they may not know exactly what is is you’re saying, they have a pretty good idea based off your context clues and repetition.