Yes, Dogs Apparently Do Understand What We’re Saying

You might want to start spelling out some words around your dog. According to a new study, not only do dogs comprehend what we’re trying to tell them by the tone of our voices, but they can also even understand what it is we’re saying — sort of.

Neuroscientist Attila Andics and his fellow researchers at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest discovered that just like human brains, a dog’s brain reacts to both the meaning of a word and how it is spoken. Just like us, the left hemisphere of a dog’s brain responds to meaning, while the right hemisphere responds to intonation.

The study, published August 30 in the journal Science, shows that even non-primate mammals who cannot speak can still comprehend the meanings of words in a speech-filled environment. This suggests that the ability of our brains to process words is not unique to humans, and may have evolved much earlier than previously thought.

Not only could these results help make communicating with our dogs more efficient, but the study sheds new light on the origin of words during language evolution. “What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them,” Andics said in a press release.

While previous studies have observed dogs to see how they understand us, this is the first one that took a look inside their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The 13 participants were all family pets. They included six border collies, five golden retrievers, a Chinese crested dog and a German shepherd.

To be tested, the dogs were first trained to lie still for eight minutes in the MRI machine while wearing headphones and a radiofrequency coil. (Based on the wagging tail of a Golden Retriever in the video below, this didn’t seem to bother at least one of the participants.) Their brain activity was recorded as they listened to a recording of their trainer saying, in both positive and neutral tones, words of praise – like “Good boy!” and “Well done!” – as well as neutral words like “however” and “as if.”

Not too surprisingly, the positively spoken positive words got a big reaction in the reward centers of the dogs’ brains. The positive words spoken neutrally and neutral words spoken with positive tones? Not so much.

Regardless of how they were spoken, the dogs processed the meaningful words in the left hemisphere of their brains. They processed intonation in the right hemisphere.

“There’s no acoustic reason for this difference,” Andics told Science. “It shows that these words have meaning to dogs. They integrate the two types of information to interpret what they heard, just as we do.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean dogs understand every single thing we say (although a Border Collie named Chaser understands over 1,000 words, which is pretty doggone remarkable).

Julie Hecht, a Ph.D. student studying canine behavior and cognition at City University of New York, offers this advice in Scientific American: “Before discussing this with your dog — ‘I knew you could understand me this whole time!’ — the caveat to this research 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.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

239 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

So do cats1

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Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba2 years ago

Not surprising.

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Thanks

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Charles Temm JR
Charles Temm JR2 years ago

any one who has ever had a dog in their lives would smile and say "well, duh folks"

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Charles Temm JR
Charles Temm JR2 years ago

No one who has lived w/a dog would deny this...

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Cathy B.
Cathy B2 years ago

Our furkids also read.. our body language!

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Cathy B.
Cathy B2 years ago

100% in agreement with article, but now how do I learn to speak "bark"? :D

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Elinor Dorrian
Elinor Dorrian2 years ago

Aha, but what if your dog learns to spell too?

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

I think most pet parents already new all this by day-to-day living. It didn't take extensive testing to prove it. We have known it all along.

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