Sit. Stay. Speak. …Listen?
It’s no secret that dogs are able to recognize words and understand the semantics behind them — to a point, at least. But how do they do it? A pair of studies from research teams based at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia suggest that dogs’ processing of human language isn’t that different from our own.
The Eötvös Loránd University-based team used an MRI scanner to examine brain activity in dogs as handlers spoke a range of phrases to them. Among the phrases spoken were those commonly used for praise toward dogs — such as “good boy!” and “well done!” — as well as arbitrary, neutral phrases that the dogs weren’t likely to understand. Both sets of phrases were spoken in various intonations, including those typically used when rewarding dogs. The researchers found that dogs processed familiar, known words using brain structures in their left hemisphere, regardless of intonation. Tonal information appeared to be processed by structures in the right hemisphere. Combined, structures in both hemispheres were used to determine the semantic nature of the phrases as well as the intent behind them.
The results suggest that dogs process speech in a manner that is not unlike the way humans process speech.
Meanwhile, the Emory-based research team conducted a similar study using dogs in MRI scanners, only instead of arbitrary phrases, the researchers used dogs’ toys and a combination of known names for them and nonsense words. Dogs were shown their toys and researchers said either the correct name for the toy or a nonsense word. When a nonsense word was spoken, dogs tended to show greater activity in structures used for auditory processing than when the correct word was spoken.
The researchers have hypothesized that dogs show greater neurological activity when presented with unfamiliar words because their brains are trying to make sense of the new “word” and understand how it relates to known concepts — in this case, their toys.
“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words, but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”
— Gregory Berns, Director, Center for Neuropolicy, Emory University
Together, the two studies suggest that dogs are not only able to develop a limited understanding of words and phrases, but that they do so in a way that is remarkably similar to the ways humans understand language as well.