A recent scientific study has confirmed what dog lovers have suspected all along – that their canine companions actually understand what is being said to them.
A group of researchers at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, used functional MRI (fMRI) technology to scan the brains of 13 family dogs, and found that the animals use both hemispheres of the brain to process speech, in a manner quite similar to that of humans.
In conducting the research, the dogs were trained to lie motionless inside the fMRI machine (they were unrestrained and could leave whenever they wished) while listening to their trainer’s voice through headphones.
The researchers were able to use the scan results to determine that dogs can not only recognize both words and pitch differences, but can also process these combined factors to determine if they make sense.
From the Associated Press:
“[T]he dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and pitch were positive. Meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.”
Although earlier studies have already demonstrated that dogs do understand the differences between words, as well as the manner in which they are spoken, this new research was the first to show how this processing takes place in the brain.
Dogs process language in much the same way as humans
What was surprising about the results is how similar the processing is to our own.
From The Washington Post:
“Using the brain activity images, the researchers saw that the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans. Tone, or the emotion behind the word, on the other hand, was analyzed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere — just as it is in people.”
“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” according to lead researcher Attila Andics. “Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.”
How much do dogs actually understand?
The researchers stressed that the scan results do not prove that dogs are able to grasp the actual meaning of words in the way humans do, but may only be responding to them due to their familiarity.
However, due to the fact that dogs probably hear the same words used by humans in other contexts, it is perhaps safe to assume that familiarity is not the key factor, but whether or not the word is being addressed to the dog, giving it “meaning” to the dog in question.
On the other hand, there have been studies that have confirmed that dogs are capable of understanding the differences between hundreds of words. Two such studies involved a border collie named Chaser, who has learned the names of more than 1,000 objects, and can even distinguish between groups of objects – such as “balls” and “Frisbees” – and the individual names for the objects within each group.
This latest research implies that since dog brains process language in a similar manner to that of humans, the potential of a rather sophisticated grasp of language may exist among many other species.
And the relatively long association between dogs and humans may explain why they are seemingly more capable than cats, for instance, in terms of “understanding” human speech; the association between cats and humans is a much more recent one, comparatively speaking.
Humans are perhaps not as unique as previously thought in terms of potential language capabilities. What actually separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is probably the fact that we invented and use words, but not that we are the only species that can understand them.