Your dog is listening.

Not just that, she’s understanding what you’re saying. Like really understanding you — and now we can prove it with doggie brain scans and science.

Very exciting news for dog lovers (and science nerds) everywhere.

According to scientists in Hungary who published a groundbreaking new study, not only is your dog listening to your words – she’s using your intonation to figure out what you’re saying. This study has shown, with actual dog brain mapping, that dogs understanding comes from both association with our actual words, and the tone of voice we use to speak to them.

New brain scans of 13 pet dogs reveal that the canines understand both our words and in the tone in which we say them. PHOTOGRAPH BY ENIKŐ KUBINYI
New brain scans of 13 pet dogs reveal that the canines understand both our words and in the tone in which we say them.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ENIKŐ KUBINYI

This new research into the field of dog cognition has hammered home what some doggie scientists have been hypothesizing for years – that dogs can actually understand what we are saying, and can pick up language somewhat similarly to a human child.

Technology is amazing. Because of things like brain scanners (and people brilliant enough to train dogs to work with us in the process of discovery) we now know so much more than we did even five years ago about dog cognition. Recent scientific studies have shown us what is actually happening inside a dogs brain when their trainers talk to them. It’s allowed scientists to figure out whether dogs can actually understand us, and what’s going on in their brains if they do.

Thanks to the research team in the Department of Ethology at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, we now have demonstrated scientific proof that dogs do understand what we are saying, and how we are saying it. Their work with fMRI brain scans (“a non-invasive, harmless way of measurement that dogs enjoy to take part of” said Marta Gacsi, ethologist, and the developer of the training method that taught these research doggies how to lay still during the brain scans) allowed researchers to see what was happening in the dogs brains as they conducted their tests.

To be able to conduct the experiment, the scientists (dog lovers) had to be able to get those dog brain scans.That meant they needed their doggie subjects to lie totally still while going through the fMRI scanner (a process which lasted eight whole minutes) — on top of that, they needed the dogs to wear earphones and a radio frequency coil on their heads.

No problem, right?! Well, maybe not as easy to get a doggie to do as it is for us to describe.

The study utilized a variety of family dogs, some of which were trained to assist disabled people — while other dogs could only sit down and stay when the research began. One thing was sure, it wasn’t important for the dogs to be well trained for them to be successful in learning what they needed to know to do their part in this study. One thing was for sure, the Hungarian brainiacs needed dogs that trusted their owners, and Marta Gacsi had the tough job of earning each of these dogs trust herself in order for this thing to work.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ENIKŐ KUBINYI
PHOTOGRAPH BY ENIKŐ KUBINYI

And work it did — the results were astonishing and will make any dog lover’s heart explode with happiness.

It’s possible for dogs to learn our language. Maybe they can’t talk back (yet?!), but they certainly can communicate with their actions and even their barks & voice. They can retrieve the objects we ask them to bring to us, by name and category. It’s possible they can pick up words through association, even when we aren’t specifically training them too.

At this point in our evolution, and the evolution of our domestic doggie companions, it has been well established that dogs respond to human voices even better than they do their ancestral brethren, wolves. Dogs are able to associate hundreds (even thousands!) of words to objects and actions and learn elements of our grammar.

But these new findings (thank you awesome Hungarian scientists!) mean dogs are more like us than we ever thought. They process language in the same regions of their brains as we do.

Even though this had already been shown in previous studies, it had only been observed in dogs behavior…no one had actually seen how it happens inside a dogs brain.

The head of these brainiac dog lovers, Attila Andics and colleagues, brought in thirteen family dogs (mostly golden and border collies) — it’s awesome to see them using regular family dogs in the experiment too. Unlike some of the other studies, where the dogs being used in the experiments were working dogs, these pups were just like our fur babies. Trainers did have to teach the dogs to lie still in the brain scan machine, but knowing these were family dogs makes it way more likely that our fur babies possess the same abilities.

PhD student (and author of the study), Anna Gabor, explained how they found out how dogs process language.

She describes, “we measured dogs’ brain activity as they listened to their trainer’s speech. Dogs heard praise words in praising intonation, praise words in natural intonation and also neutral conjunction words, meaningless to them, in praising and natural intonations. We then looked for brain regions that differentiated between meaningful and meaningless words, or between praising and non-praising intonations.”

And just like humans, the results showed that dogs use different parts of their brains to process words and intonation. The brain activation images showed that dogs prefer to use the left hemisphere to process meaningful but not meaningless words. And it was present independent of intonation.

Dogs activate a right hemisphere brain area to tell apart praising and non-praising intonation. That’s the same auditory brain region that researches had previously found dogs used to process emotional non-speech sounds…which suggests that intonation processing mechanisms are not specific to speech.

Head brainiac, Antics explained how these findings also have important conclusions about humans. In his words, “Our research sheds new light on the emergence of words during language evolution. What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them.”

Put simply: Dogs possess the same special neural capacity to process language as us, whether they invented the words or not.

There’s just something about seeing something like this happening that hits the point closer to home. It’s always been one thing for dog lovers, like us, to imagine that our dogs could understand us. To proclaim to those who don’t understand dogs the way we do that our dogs could comprehend what we told them. But now we can see it happening with our own eyes. Now we have scientific evidence.

Hopefully, before long, someone will do an even more thorough experiment that shows what’s happening in a dogs brain as they process the emotions around them. Specifically, the emotions that their humans bring to the table. As dog lovers know…dogs can certainly sense our emotions. It’d be fascinating to know whether they experience emotions similarly to us.

For now though, we will celebrate the fact that science has proven what we’ve always known. That our dogs do understand what we’re saying, and how we’re saying it.


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