Technology & Science

Dogs really do understand human language, study suggests

FMRI scans show dogs recognize both words themselves and tone in which they're spoken

DogDays

A new study has found that dogs' brains really can understand human language, responding to both words and the tone in which they are spoken. (Submitted by Angela Eileen Russell)

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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, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere — just like humans.

Dog MRI scanner

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. (Vilja & Vanda Molnár)

What's more, the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and intonation were positive; meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn't have the same effect.

"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. "Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match."

dog mri

Lead researcher Attila 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. (Enikő Kubinyi)

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.

Brain language abilities not uniquely human

"The neural capacities to process words that were thought by many to be uniquely human are actually shared with other species," he said. "This suggests that the big change that made humans able to start using words was not a big change in neural capacity."

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.

Dogs MRI language study

All of the dogs were awake, unrestrained and happy during the tests, researchers said. (Eniko Kubinyi)

Dogs, on the other hand, have socialized with humans for thousands of years, meaning they are more attentive to what people say to them and how.

Researchers imaged the brains of 13 dogs using a technique called functional MRI, or fMRI, which records brain activity.

The dogs— six border collies, five golden retrievers, a German shepherd and a Chinese crested — were trained to lie motionless in the scanner for seven minutes during the tests. The dogs were awake and unrestrained as they listened to their trainer's voice through headphones.

"The most difficult aspect of this training is for dogs to understand that being motionless means really motionless," said Andics, who published the findings in the journal Science.

Andics noted that all of the dogs were awake, unrestrained and happy during the tests. "They participated voluntarily," he said.

While dog owners may find the results unsurprising, from a scientific perspective, it's a "shocker" that word meaning seems to be processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, said Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, who had no role in the research.

Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns cautioned that the study involved a small number of dogs. Before concluding it's a smoking gun for word processing, "they should have looked for other evidence in the brain," he said in an email.

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