18 September 2016

RESEARCH - Dogs Understand More Human Language Than Previously Thought

Anyone who’s casually mentioned a walk in a conversation and had their dog bound for the door knows that dogs understand human language.

One hypothesis has been that dogs respond to the intonation of human language, rather than to specific words.

This is the idea that it’s not what the trainer says, but how the trainer says it. And this focus on intonation is certainly valid – verbal praise is a well-established method of rewarding dogs, and in fact may be more effective than food.

However, researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary have confirmed that dogs can process words as well as intonation.

The researchers used fMRI scans to determine that dogs are able to separately process both lexical and intonational information from their trainers’ voice.

The study confirms earlier research at the University of Sussex that suggested dogs and humans have similar specialized brain regions that allow for parallel processing of multiple parts of speech, such as word and tone.

Both dogs and humans process words with the left hemisphere of their brains, and intonation with the right.

These parallels in human and dog brains may be an example of convergent evolution. They may indicate that humans artificially selected dogs over thousands of years based on their responsiveness to human language.

Though Dr. Brian Hare, who studies both dogs and primates at Duke University, told The New York Times that “it’s possible that dogs had independently evolved a similar brain organization.”

The finding that dogs can understand words as well as tone also indicates that parallel processing began to evolve in non-primates even before humans developed language.

Attila Andics, the lead researcher in the Hungarian study, accomplished something new by training the dogs in the study to voluntarily lay motionless in the MRI machine for the seven-minute test. The dogs were unrestrained, and had the ability to leave the test at any point.

This has not been possible with non-human primates, because according to Dr. Hare, non-human primates will not willingly undergo MRI scans.

Despite the fascinating implications of the study, it does not mean that dogs understand human language in any comprehensive sense.

The study was small, and interpreting fMRI results is notoriously challenging.

Left hemisphere activation could be associated with positive emotions, as it often is in humans, without necessarily also involving lexical processing. Since all of the words used in the study were neutral or positive, and all of the intonations were also neutral or positive, teasing out what the dogs were actually responding to is a challenge.

However, regardless of where the research goes from here, this study has opened up new avenues to explore in both the domestication of dogs and human understanding of the evolution of language.

And, for dog owners and trainers, it confirms what many have suspected for a long time – it matters how you talk to your dog, and it matters what you say.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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