How dogs actually understand human speech

Anyone with a dog will tell you that these animals are great listeners. But how well do they really understand what their masters tell them? The answer may surprise you greatly.

Dogs understand more than you think, according to a study published in Science in 2016. Using MRI, researchers in Budapest studied the brain activity of dogs as they heard the voice of their trainer, and made a very interesting conclusion.

The study involved 12 dogs (6 border collies, 4 golden retrievers, 1 German shepherd and 1 Chinese crested), which the owners voluntarily provided for the necessary procedures. The dogs were specially trained to lie still inside the MRI scanner and were free to leave whenever they wanted. However, they all showed miracles of calmness and passed the examination with flying colors.

The trainers spoke to the dogs in different ways: they used positive phrases in a positive tone, positive phrases in a neutral tone, and neutral phrases in a neutral tone. They were all expressions in Hungarian with which they usually praise their pets. When the dogs listened to the recording of their trainer’s words, it became clear that when the dog expects praise, the corresponding brain centers are activated only when positive phrases are spoken in a positive tone. In other words, not only the words themselves, but also the tone with which they were pronounced, were of great importance to them. The animals did not react to neutral expressions, even if spoken positively.

Lead researcher Atilla Andix explains that there is a kind of “division of labor” in the human brain during speech processing. The brain not only analyzes separately what and how we say, but also combines different types of information, deriving a common meaning. The study proved that in this regard, dogs are no different from humans, since they use very similar analysis algorithms.

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