Dogs Know What You’re Saying

August 31, 2016

Scientists have found evidence to support what many dog owners have long believed: Man’s best friend really does understand some of what we’re saying.

Researchers in Hungary scanned the brains of dogs as they were listening to their trainer speaking to determine which parts of the brain they were using.

They found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere and used the right hemisphere to process pitch—just like people.

What’s more, the 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.

A demonstration of how dogs, listening to their owner’s voice on headphones, were scanned to determine that their brains processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere—just like humans. (Eniko Kubinyi/Eotvos Lorand University via AP)

“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” said lead researcher Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said in an email. “Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.”

Andics said the findings suggest that the mental ability to process language evolved earlier than previously believed and that what sets humans apart from other species is the invention of words.

While other species probably also have the mental ability to understand language like dogs do, their lack of interest in human speech makes it difficult to test, said Andics.

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