Just How Much Do We Know About Dog Understanding?

As dog owners, we see dog understanding often and know our dogs understand a lot of what we are saying. However, scientists have long disputed just how much they really understand. Until now, that is. According to the article “Dogs May Understand Even More Than We Thought” in Scientific American, dogs matched words and the tone of voice in which they were spoken to figure out the meaning. Clever dogs!

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The researchers first trained a group of thirteen dogs, ranging from border collies to golden retrievers, to lie still inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine for several minutes. While each dog listened to recordings of his trainer’s voice, the scientists scanned his brain and measured its activity. The dogs had to lie perfectly still throughout the seven-minute test – an early indicator of just how clever these canines were!

The research team, from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, then played different combinations of words and intonations. Whether they heard exuberant praise, neutral praise, or exuberant gibberish, the dogs’ brains responded accordingly. Exuberant praise activated the dopamine (or reward) center of their brains. Neutral praise received the minimal response it deserved, and the dogs’ brains did not respond at all to even excited gibberish.

That last response is particularly interesting since a previous study showed that dogs could pick up on the intonation of a foreign language. Apparently, they can also tell the difference between a foreign language and gibberish! The same study also showed that dogs could distinguish between male and female voices – something that is not a surprise to dog lovers! Victoria Ratcliffe, of the University of Sussex, said: “This new study shows that dogs pick up much more information than we thought.”

Apparently, dogs process different parts of speech in a way that is very similar to how their humans do it. The left hemisphere of their brain recognizes the words, the right hemisphere analyzes the tone, and the two components come together as a meaningful phrase. They may not interpret the results exactly as we do, but these studies show that they often get the ‘gist’ of what we are saying.

As neuroscientist and lead researcher of the Budapest study Atilla Andics said: “We think of words as being unique to humans but, in fact, dogs can process the meaning and tone of words—and they do it in a very similar way to humans.”

If you would like to learn how to praise your dog in a way that activates his dopamine center, contact Canine Commander. Our trainers can help both you and your dog learn to communicate better and enhance dog understanding.