If you think that your dog follows what you’re saying, you’re not alone. A study published in the prestigious journal Science has established this apparent belief with credible data and statistics by using brains scans.
An experiment, the first of its kind, Hungarian scientists from Eötvös Loránd University trained 13 dogs to lie inside a fMRI scanner to monitor their brain activity while awake. The dogs were mostly border collies and golden retrievers, and they were not restrained inside the scanner. The unrestrained movement was key to giving scientists an insightful image into the mind of a dog.
A trainer was recorded saying certain phrases under different tones. The phrase would be switched between meaningful terms, such as “Good boy,” to neutral terms that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with them, such as “however.” The researchers recorded each dog’s brain waves as they reacted to various recordings played over to them.
The scientists discovered that canine brains decode language in a very similar manner to humans, with the left side processing meaning and the right side handling emotions.
When both sides of the dogs’ brains agreed that they were being praised, the dogs showed visible signs of happiness. This was a further clue that dogs have an idea of what specific sounds of human words mean.
The human brain processes speech in what is known as ‘distribution of labor.’ The left side processes meanings of individual words and the right side process the rise and fall of speech. The human brain separately analyzes both sides and then integrates the two to arrive at a single, cohesive meaning.
The scans showed that the canine brains function in much the same way. When dogs heard words that were meaningful to them, their left brain activated. This didn’t happen when they couldn’t understand the words being spoken to them. The right side of the brain activated when they heard a praising intonation.
The ‘reward center’ of their brains, which normally activate during pleasurable sensations like eating good food and being petted, responded to words that were spoken in a praising manner. For dogs, both the words and the intonation – how we say it – matters.
These results don’t mean that dogs can understand the precise meaning of all words spoken by humans. It merely indicates that they know some words over the course of their training, eventually learning to associate ‘praiseworthy’ words with favorable outcomes. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to dog owners, who have used verbal commands to train them and communicate their thoughts.
Previous studies indicated that dogs only understood the intonation and didn’t have a clue about what was being spoken. This research has shown that dogs can interpret human speech, and they might, one day, help to make communication between dogs and humans more efficient.
In case you’re wondering if the same applies to other domesticated animals like cats and horses, the researchers believe the same patterns will be observed if the animals lived among humans for the majority of their lives.