Almost timely with the recent Secret Life of Pets movie, recent research studies say that dogs actually understand human speech much better than we thought.1 2
This is probably no secret to dog-owners and lovers out there though!
It is popularly assumed that what you say doesn’t matter as long as you say it nicely to your dog, and yes its ok to pour them with a hundred ‘I love you’s per day.
A recent research study by the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, conducted an experiment where they hired around 13 dogs that live with families. The head of that research project, Attila Andics and his research mates said that the dogs were mostly border collies and golden retrievers.
The dogs were then trained to sit in an fMRI scanner (a machine used to study brain and neurological activity), without restrains and were free to leave if they wanted. A pre-recorded audio clip of the trainer’s voice was made, saying different phrases with different tones.
The trainer said some Hungarian phrases that were said by almost all dog owners for praising their dogs with a positive tone. In addition, she also said some neutral phrases, that have no significant meaning, in a neutral tone of voice.
So, in this manner, the trainer played with words and tonality, by saying the praise phrases in a neutral tone and the neutral phrases in a praising tone.
While the recordings were played, the researchers monitored the dog’s brain waves and found that the dogs brain activity processed words and voices in two different sections of the brain.
The praise words, made their left hemispheres show activity, but this cognitive reaction was irrespective of the tone used to say those words, because their right hemispheres registered the tone of the trainer’s voice. This manner of brain activity is similar to the ways humans process language and tonality.
Nevertheless, the voice still played an important role for the dogs, even if the words showed more brain activity. The dogs are habituated to hearing the praise words irrespective of the tone, however, it helps confirm conditioned associations in a part of their minds, called the ‘rewards center’.
This meant that the tone told their mind that they will be rewarded for the praise words spoken, with positive affection, attention or food.
So, although a nice praise guarantees reward, it works best if both words and tonality match. Dogs are clever enough to disassociate what we say and how we say it, only interpreting what we mean if they both carry the same wavelength, just as humans perceive.
This comes a long way from the experiment conducted by Nobel-prize winning, Russian physiologist and pioneer in the research for classical conditioning with dogs in the early 1900’s.
This, however, still does not confirm that dogs actually comprehend our vocabulary. So only time will tell if they will soon be sitting and listening to radio talk shows with us for some intellectual banter.
What it does tell us is that they can tell the difference between meaningful and meaningless words, and may even instinctively interpret our body language in association with words and tone.
Till then they know very well that some praise or affection equals positive outcomes, like a belly rub or that piece of ham in your sandwich.
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