The science of understanding between dogs and humans.

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.

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Yes, Dogs Apparently Do Understand What We’re Saying

By: Laura Goldman, September 5, 2016

About Laura Follow Laura at @lauragoldman

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

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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!

39 thoughts on “The science of understanding between dogs and humans.

  1. They understand so much, but they have a far greater range for that understanding than we do, with their sense of smell as well as their hearing. Ani knows just what I am saying when I speak to her, if not the words then the sense and intent.

    1. Yes! Almost as though they read our minds!

      Sue, do you recall that fact about humans having left-gaze bias? Shared by only one animal species in the world? Our dogs!

      1. Yes, I noticed that and observed Ani for a while. You can definitely see the face working differently in different emotive situations too.

  2. Ah yes. The T word. T for treats. In fact T word is no longer used in a loud voice. Nor is salchicha or beicon or whatever treats were available. Currently it is jamón (Tosca has mange so need that to wrap up the tablets) which is being added to their vocab.

    Of course half their words are spanish and half english. Tosca, tu turno (to go out). Snowy, you’re primero.

    We tried the spelling out thing too, and like you, it didn’t last long. Annoyingly intelligent animals dogs. They certainly run our household.

    1. They run our households, and our hearts.

      Pharaoh didn’t want to stir some 60 minutes ago when we first awoke and I freaked out thinking this was his last day. In fact, he got himself going soon after but I realised how emotionally ill-prepared I am for that last day, when it does arrive.

      1. Difficult to see our shepherds go. Prince before him went one night at home (I was in the UK) and A buried him up the river bed, then sat on the Land Rover, contemplating. When the Guardia Civil came past and asked what he was doing, he explained. They left him alone.

      2. The only thing that helps is having others to concentrate on. So right now we have two young ones, not by choice, but by circumstance ie street dogs. At approx 2/3 and four, should be a while for them to go …

  3. Thanks for the awesome share Paul and yes dogs can hear everything what we talk and they do respond too and they are simply darlings. They are God’s gift to us and angels to be kept as pets.

    1. Agree with you up to the point where they are a gift to us. But I am not a believer in a God, being a committed atheist, so we will have to agree to disagree on that one! Doesn’t stop me loving your response! 😍

  4. Yes, Paul, spelling doesn’t work. Mags understands walk, ride in car, lollygag, ball, treat, I could go on & on.
    Like the article states, dogs recognize familiar words & not necessarily the meanings like humans. But that is good enough for me.

  5. I will answer individually in a few moments.

    But I had to tell you what it feels like, a little after 6am, when I turn on my tablet and see 12 ‘Likes’ and 5 wonderful replies. It feels very special!

    Thank you, kind persons!

  6. Thanks for sharing this Paul.. I have no doubts at all we are understood by our four legged friends.. I also think they pick up telepathically too.. Studies have been done on dogs waiting at home, and as soon as their owners start their journey to return home to them, the dogs pattern of behaviour alters and they get excited..

    My cats as I have said before once the word Vets was mentioned would exit the door for hours.. lol.. try keeping a vets appointment with one that goes AWOL.. 🙂
    Hope you have a happy week both of you..

    1. Sue, another gorgeous response from you. In fact, unwittingly, your response came in as Jean and I were outside giving our dogs a flea treatment. That consists of breaking the seal on a small, individual, plastic capsule and running the contents along the dog’s spine.

      So here we all are playing happily outside, just like we do every day at this time. Then Jeannie goes inside to bring out the box of treatment capsules. She comes out with the box held behind her, supposedly out of sight from the dogs.

      It was if someone had fired a very loud cannon in our front yard. Brandy scampered off down the quarter-mile drive towards our front gate. Oliver, who had been playing a ball game with me, wouldn’t let me get close enough for me to grab his collar, and only Cleo was sufficiently unfazed to allow the treatment to be administered.

      I then jumped on the bike, went to bring Brandy back from the gate, and meanwhile Oliver had been grabbed by Jean.

      Talk about telepathy!!

      1. Haha… that conjured up a beautiful image of dogs flying everywhere.. And I know the treatment you speak of, I would use on my Cats.. 🙂 and yes They read minds and well as know what we speak of…
        🙂 Thank you for sharing that Paul.. Love to you both.. 🙂

    1. Not surprised in the slightest to hear that! And they listen even when we think they are miles away. For example, a dog can go from being fast asleep to wagging it’s tail by the front door in much less time than it takes to write this!

      1. Oh, yes! That’s like the click of me turning off the loudspeaker that’s connected to the PC we watch stuff on in the evening! Good one!

  7. Thanks for the great share Paul and yes dogs can hear what we talk but they do respond too and know what we need. They are best friends and for the life. Have look at my blog too at waldenway.com

  8. It’s not just dogs either. I used to have a horse who loved to canter, it was his favorite thing as he and I grew more advanced. First, my instructor and I had to start spelling the word canter, then it became “the c thing”, and finally she would just have to walk away muttering “whenever you want…” as nonchalantly as possible. He was such a hilarious horse, and SO naughty.

  9. This is a conversation that could go on for days. As per Sue’s comment, my first husband had a psychic dog that knew when he or his dad were coming home off schedule. Mom would watch the dog sit by the door waiting and start dinner. Even when my husband came home a week early. They do understand every word, emotion, and visual cues. You can put nothing past a dog.

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