Most Dog owners know this already but its nice to read a report with some scientific validation!
In Hungary for the last few years, Attila Andics and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project have been training companion dogs to voluntarily go into an fMRI scanner. Once in, the dogs are presented with different stimuli as their brains go under the giant figurative microscope and researchers have found evidence to support what many dog owners have long believed: dogs really can understand what we are saying.
Scientist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest scanned the brains of dogs as they were listening to their trainer speaking to determine which parts of the brain they were using and they found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere – just like humans.
What’s more, the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and intonation were positive; meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” said Andics, a neuroscientist at Eötvös Loránd University. “Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.” Andics said the findings suggest that the mental ability to process language evolved earlier than previously believed and that what sets humans apart from other species is the invention of words.
Andics maintains that the neural capacities to process words that were thought by many to be uniquely human are actually shared with other species. This suggests that the big change that made humans able to start using words was not a big change in neural capacity. While other species probably also have the mental ability to understand language, their lack of interest in human speech makes it difficult to test but Dogs, on the other hand, have socialized with humans for thousands of years, meaning they are more attentive to what people say to them and how.
So before you sit down with a cup of tea and discuss this with your dog the important caveat to understand is that a dog processing words — registering, “Ah! That’s familiar!” — and a dog understanding words as you intend are not necessarily the same thing.
Adam Miklosi, one of the study’s authors and head of the Family Dog Project…”Understanding’ is a tricky word. Studies using brain imaging technology cannot firmly say that the activation of a specific brain area indicates ‘understanding.’ For sure, dogs in this study reacted to the meaningful words, that is, to those words that their owners often use when they want to attract the dog’s attention or provide a positive feedback for the dog. So in this sense our dogs recognized these words as familiar and probably meaning something good.”
So can Dogs actually understand our words as we intend? Well Chaser the Border Collie knows the unique name for over 1,000 different objects, her wordy prowess tested and documented in two scientific publications. Chaser can differentiate between the many toys and objects in her life, that Acorn is not Crybaby, and that Slug is different from Tie Face and she can also perform different actions towards the objects, like fetch, tease, and tug. But remember Chaser and dogs like her have undergone many hours of training with words and objects.
You will probably get your Pointy Face to understand a very limited vocabulary, “Dinner” “Walkies” “Bed” and possibly a handful more (“Car” and “Treat” whispered in another room can wake two apparently sound asleep Lurchers in my house) but honestly don’t expect too much…