How our dogs process what we say to them.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post Talking to One’s Dog. Many of you stopped by and left your comments, all of which was to confirm how much speaking to your dogs (and cats) is part of normal life for you.
I finished that post writing:
Let me close by reminding all you good people of yet another wonderful aspect of the relationship between humans and dogs. In that we all know the dog evolved from the grey wolf. But had you pondered on the fact that wolves don’t bark! Yes, they howl but they do not bark.
There is good science to underpin the reason why dogs evolved barking; to have a means of communicating with us humans.
Every person who has a dog in their life will instinctively understand the meaning of most, if not all, of the barks their dog utters.
Anyway, I was going through some websites yesterday and, quite by chance, came across that science that I referred to above. It was in a Care2 article published last September and I am republishing it below.
Yes, Dogs Apparently Do Understand What We’re Saying
By: Laura Goldman, September 5, 2016
You might want to start spelling out some words around your dog. According to a new study, not only do dogs comprehend what we’re trying to tell them by the tone of our voices, but they can also even understand what it is we’re saying — sort of.
Neuroscientist Attila Andics and his fellow researchers at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest discovered that just like human brains, a dog’s brain reacts to both the meaning of a word and how it is spoken. Just like us, the left hemisphere of a dog’s brain responds to meaning, while the right hemisphere responds to intonation.
The study, published August 30 in the journal Science, shows that even non-primate mammals who cannot speak can still comprehend the meanings of words in a speech-filled environment. This suggests that the ability of our brains to process words is not unique to humans, and may have evolved much earlier than previously thought.
Not only could these results help make communicating with our dogs more efficient, but the study sheds new light on the origin of words during language evolution. “What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them,” Andics said in a press release.
While previous studies have observed dogs to see how they understand us, this is the first one that took a look inside their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The 13 participants were all family pets. They included six border collies, five golden retrievers, a Chinese crested dog and a German shepherd.
To be tested, the dogs were first trained to lie still for eight minutes in the MRI machine while wearing headphones and a radio-frequency coil. (Based on the wagging tail of a Golden Retriever in the video below, this didn’t seem to bother at least one of the participants.) Their brain activity was recorded as they listened to a recording of their trainer saying, in both positive and neutral tones, words of praise – like “Good boy!” and “Well done!” – as well as neutral words like “however” and “as if.”
Not too surprisingly, the positively spoken positive words got a big reaction in the reward centers of the dogs’ brains. The positive words spoken neutrally and neutral words spoken with positive tones? Not so much.
Regardless of how they were spoken, the dogs processed the meaningful words in the left hemisphere of their brains. They processed intonation in the right hemisphere.
“There’s no acoustic reason for this difference,” Andics told Science. “It shows that these words have meaning to dogs. They integrate the two types of information to interpret what they heard, just as we do.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean dogs understand every single thing we say (although a Border Collie named Chaser understands over 1,000 words, which is pretty doggone remarkable).
Julie Hecht, a Ph.D. student studying canine behavior and cognition at City University of New York, offers this advice in Scientific American: “Before discussing this with your dog — ‘I knew you could understand me this whole time!’ — the caveat to this research is that a dog processing words — registering, ‘Ah! That’s familiar!’ — and a dog understanding words as you intend are not necessarily the same thing.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock
I have recounted this example before about how well our dogs listen to Jean and me.
For we take our dogs out for some playtime each day after our lunch. Years ago we used to chat about whether or not to have a cup of tea before taking the dogs for a walk. But pretty quickly once they heard the word “walk’ spoken aloud they were all crowding around the front door.
Then it was a case of spelling out the word: “W – A – L – K”. That lasted for, oh, two or three days.
Then it was using a variety of phrases that we thought would be meaningless to the dogs. That didn’t work!
And on and on.
Now, as soon as we are finishing up our food they are at the door. Jean and I now delay our hot drink to later on!
The most beautiful human – animal relationship in the world!