Scientists Claim That Dogs’ Ability To Understand Human Speech Is Better Than We Imagined

You have probably heard the common saying that it doesn’t truly matter what you say to your puppy, as long as you say it nicely.

Perhaps you found this distressing, as you like to believe your pet knows exactly what you mean when you tell them “I love you” 12 to 14 times per day

However, it turns out dogs might understand more than people have traditionally given them credit for, based on a new study by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, recently published in the journal Science.

Researchers recruited 13 family dogs that live with their owners. The pets were trained to sit in an fMRI scanner – a device which measures brain activity – while awake. Attila Andics, lead researchers, and his colleagues note that the dogs – most of which border collies and golden retrievers – were never restrained inside the scanner and were free to leave if they wanted. The scientists recorded a trainer’s voice repeating certain phrases with different types of intonation.

In one recording, the trainer said Hungarian expressions with the same type of vocal intonation someone would typically use to praise a dog. She also repeated a variety of “neutral” words – such as conjunctions, unlikely to carry any particular meaning – in a neutral tone of voice.


Nevertheless, the trainer also switched up the combinations, repeating the “praise” phrases in a neutral tone and the “neutral” phrases in a “praising” tone.


Then, researchers monitored every dog’s brain waves as they played the different phrases.


They found out that the dogs processed the phrases and tone of voice separately, in two different sections of their brain. When they heard the familiar “praise” words, their brains’ left hemisphere lit up; it was the same general location that human beings use to process language. This occurred regardless of the kind of tone the trainer was using.


Dogs Ability To Understand Human Speech Is Better Than We Imagined
The very adorable test subjects. (ENIKO KUBINYI)


The dogs seemed to register tone, nevertheless, in their right hemisphere. Again, that’s in the same place that humans do it.


Even though the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of tone, that did not mean the tone was insignificant.


Their “rewards center” – the part of the brain where they process experiences such as positive attention and foods – was stimulated when the dogs heard the praise words spoken in a “praising,” positive tone. In other words, the pups processed the praise words as familiar regardless of how they were spoken, but it registered as positive attention only when they were expressed in a praising tone.


“It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match,” Andics, the lead researcher, stated. “So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant. Again, this is very similar to what human brains do.”


Dogs Ability To Understand Human Speech Is Better Than We Imagined
A golden retriever hanging out on the scanner bed. (ENIKO KUBINYI)


The results do not necessarily prove that dogs can grasp the exact meaning of all familiar words. However, it does indicate that dogs can distinguish between words they have heard before and words they have not. And it suggests that they can at least associate “praise” words that are familiar to them, with positive outcomes.


“One important thing is that we don’t claim that dogs understand everything we say, of course,” Andics told The Huffington Post.


Dog owners have known for a long time they could use verbal commands to train their dogs, such as “sit.” However, Andics explained that even dogs’ reactions to these commands are frequently hard to separate from the tone of the voice and body language a trainer may incorporate. His study shows that dogs can recognize familiar words, in spite of contexts such as tone of voice and other aspects such as body language.


“The main result is not that they can differentiate words, but that they differentiate meaningful and meaningless words, and the left hemisphere has a key role there,” he added.


He continued saying that he suspects researchers would discover similar results with other domestic animals, such as cats and horses if the animals in question had lived among people.