Dogs Process Language Like Us, but What Do They Understand?
If you’re speaking to me, it’s not just what you say but how you say it that matters. A new study published this week in Science finds that dogs also pick up on these important, yet separate details. And there's more. Not only does this study add to our knowledge of how dogs attend to human language, it also raises important questions about the difference betweenprocessing human speech and understanding it.
For the last few years, Attila Andics and his colleagues in Hungary (Family Dog Project Facebook, Twitter) are one of a handful of research groups training companion dogs to voluntarily go into an fMRI. Once in, the dogs are presented with different stimuli as their brains go under the giant figurative microscope.
In the recent study, dogs heard both familiar praise words and neutral words presented with a praising or neutral tone. The researchers found that, like us, dog brains separate out the vocabulary bits from the intonation, processing familiar words in the left hemisphere and intonation in auditory regions of the right, a finding that corroborates and extends earlier behavioral studies. The conclusion, according to Science, is that "dogs seem to understand both human words and intonation."
Your dog, your words?
Before discussing this with your dog — "I knew you could understand me this whole time!" — the caveat to this research is that a dog processingwords — registering, "Ah! That’s familiar!" — and a dog understandingwords as you intend are not necessarily the same thing.
Adam Miklosi, one of the study’s authors and head of the Family Dog Project weighs in over email, "'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."
Could dogs understand our words as we intend? Good gosh of course! Just look at Chaser the Border Collie who knows the unique name for over 1,000 different objects, her wordy prowess tested and documented in twoscientific publications. Chaser knows the difference between the many toys and objects in her life, that Acorn is not Crybaby, and that Slug is different from Tie Face. She can also perform different actions towards the objects, like fetch, tease, and tug. Chaser’s left hemisphere is on fire.
Miklosi would probably agree: "The other important aspect of [our] study is that the left brain of the dogs processed the meaningful wordsindependent from the intonation. This means that the brain could probably recognize that 'good dog' is the same expression independent of how it was said."
But for understanding, remember that Chaser and dogs like her have undergone many hours of training with words and