Study Finds That Dogs Not Only Understand What We Say, But How We Say It

PetMD Editorial
Published: September 12, 2016
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When you tell your dog "Good boy!" when he's gone potty in the right place or retrieved a ball you've thrown, he looks happy that he made you so very happy. While dog owners already know that the words we say and how we say them have a major impact on our pets, science is now proving it to be true. 

The groundbreaking study, which was conducted by a Hungarian research group (led by researcher Attila Andics of the Department of Ethology and MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group at Eötvös Loránd University) and published in Science magazine, reports that "dogs, like people, use the left hemisphere [of their brain] to process words, a right hemisphere brain region to process intontation, and praising activates dogs' reward center only when both words and inontation match."

In other words, if you say "I love you" in a neutral tone of voice, your dog won't have the same response to it as if you were to say those same words, but with a more cheerful disposition. (Think about it... can't you say the same for yourself?) 

So, how exactly did the researchers find this evidence? According to a press release from Andics, 13 dogs were trained by Márta Gácsi, ethologist and developer of the training method, and an author of the study, to lay completely motionless in an fMRI brain scanner. fMRI provided a non-invasive, harmless way of measuring the dog's brains.

"We measured dogs’ brain activity as they listened to their trainer’s speech,” Anna Gábor, PhD student and author of the study said in the release. “Dogs heard praise words in praising intonation, praise words in neutral intonation, and also neutral conjunction words, meaningless to them, in praising and neutral intonations. We looked for brain regions that differentiated between meaningful and meaningless words, or between praising and non-praising intonations."

In the press release, Andics says that, like human brains, a dog's brain responds more effectively "if both words and intonation match." This revelation not only supports the knowledge that dogs can understand language and have emotional responses like we do, but that language itself is a construct. "What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them,” Andics said.

petMD talked to other experts in the field to get their take on the study. Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, DVM, BVMS, DVA, DACVAA, DACVB, of Tufts University and author of Pets on the Couch, says, "This study is yet another brick in the wall that proves that dogs are more like us than people give them credit for."

Dodman points out that dogs have the capacity to understand short words and phrases that they know (such as "come" or "sit and stay"), but more complex language or "nonsense words" will have no effect on them because there's no intrinsic reward. Still, like humans, when the reward mechanism part of the brain is lit up, the reaction will be very different. 

Dr. Laurie Bergman, VMD, DACVB of Keystone Veterinary Behavior Services, echoes the sentiment that the study proves what so many dog owners and trainers already know about language and the effect it has on their canine companions. "It's recognizing how innately rewarding a good, positive interaction can be with an owner [for the dog]." 

Image via Shutterstock