Dogs can understand human speech a lot better than we thought

Did you know that animals can learn our language and perceive both its pronunciation and intonation?


Sit! Stay! Good boy! Many of us use such words with our nonhuman best friends every day. Now new research suggests that they may actually understand at least some of what we say—and that they may be paying a lot of attention to how we say it.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, have shown that man’s best friend readily understands spoken words and also gains information from the intonation used.

Within this study, 13 dogs were trained to lie still in an MRI scanner while listening to their masters’ voices.

The scientists recorded a trainer’s voice saying certain phrases with varying types of intonation.

In one recording, Attila Andics, leader of the investigation, said Hungarian expressions “used by all test dog owners for praising” with the same type of vocal intonation a person would typically use to praise a dog. She also spoke a variety of “neutral” words, like conjunctions that are unlikely to carry any particular meaning, and said them in a neutral tone of voice.

However, the trainer also switched up these combinations saying the “praise” phrases in a neutral tone of voice, and saying the “neutral” phrases in a tone that sounded like she was praising the dogs.

It turned out that a dog’s left brain hemisphere is able to tell the meanings of words regardless of the intonation they are said with. This means that dogs can differentiate words upon hearing them, both positive and neutral, with any intonation, and understand their meaning.

At the same time, the right hemisphere of their brain helps the animal understand the difference between praising and non-praising intonation. It also helps them give the words they are hearing an emotional connection.

The results don’t necessarily prove that dogs can grasp the precise meaning of all familiar words, but it does indicate that they can distinguish between words they’ve heard before and words they haven’t. And it suggests that they at least associate familiar “praise” words with positive outcomes.

Also, it is unclear how a dog’s understanding of words and tone evolved, the researchers said. The skill could have evolved as dogs were gradually domesticated, but this is unlikely because their ability to process words emerged too quickly.

This suggests older origins for the emergence of vocal communication.

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