They Studied Dogs' Awareness of Human Words, and Guess What They Found?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog and human communication

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study of how dogs interpret human words suggests they’re able to make connections between objects and the words we call them
  • Past studies show dogs listen not only to what we say, but how we say it (our tone of voice)
  • While words are the preferred communication tool for humans, our dogs may pay more attention to our posture, gestures and eye contact —perhaps because they often use body language to communicate with us

The never-ending quest to learn what makes canine companions tick has produced a brand new study of dogs’ understanding of human words, or more specifically, the connections they make between objects and the words we assign to them.1 Let’s say your dog’s favorite toy is a small stuffed bunny. Whenever you ask, “Where’s bunny?” your dog cocks her head and moves in the direction of her toy basket.

What, exactly, is she responding to? Is your tone of voice telling her something good might be about to happen? Or does she actually form a mental image of her fuzzy pink bunny? This is the kind of question researchers at Emory University set out to answer. Despite the fervent belief of many dog parents that their pet knows the meaning of certain words, there’s no real science to confirm it. According to Emory neuroscientist and dog lover Dr. Gregory Berns, senior author of the study:

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands. Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”2

Experiment Shows Dogs Associate Certain Words With Certain Objects

For their study, Berns and his team recruited 12 dogs of varying breeds who were already comfortable lying still in a fMRI scanner. Their owners were instructed to train them to retrieve two different objects, based on the objects’ names.

Each dog was given a soft object such as a stuffed animal, and an object with a different texture, such as rubber, to help distinguish the two. The training involved asking the dogs to fetch one of the items and receive praise or treats as a reward. The dogs were considered trained when they reliably retrieved the object their owners asked for when both items were presented to them.

Once in the lab, each dog lay in the fMRI scanner while the owner stood directly in front of him at the opening of the machine and repeated the names of the toys at predefined intervals, then showed the dog the corresponding toys. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish and held up a new object.

The scanner results showed greater activation in auditory regions of the dogs’ brains to the gibberish words compared to the words they had been trained to associate with the objects. This was a surprise, since studies with humans show greater neural activation in response to known words versus novel words.

It could be that dogs show greater neural activation with new words because they sense their humans want them to understand, and so they try to. As Berns observes, “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food.”

Dogs 'Appear to Have a Neural Representation for the Meaning of Words They Have Been Taught'

Interestingly, half the dogs in the experiment showed increased activation for the novel words in one area of the brain, while the other half showed activation in other brain regions. This could be the result of variations among breeds, sizes and cognitive abilities. Dogs’ brains across breeds vary widely in both size and shape.

“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words,” Berns says, “but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”

Rough translation: This study shows that dogs do indeed seem able to form mental pictures that correspond to words they’ve been taught. So the dog in my earlier example, when asked about her bunny, actually sees some version of her toy in her head when she hears the word “bunny.”

Dogs Listen Not Only to What We Say, but How We Say It

A 2016 study concluded that our four-legged friends are listening not only to what we say, but also how we say it.3 When you praise your dog, her brain’s reward center perks up if your words match your tone of voice. These findings suggest the ability to process words evolved much earlier than was originally thought. According to Phys.org:

“It shows that if an environment is rich in speech, as is the case of family dogs, word meaning representations can arise in the brain, even in a non-primate mammal that is not able to speak.”4

Attila Andics, Ph.D. of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and lead researcher of the study, published in the journal Science, explains:

"During speech processing, there is a well-known distribution of labor in the human brain. It is mainly the left hemisphere's job to process word meaning, and the right hemisphere's job to process intonation.

The human brain not only separately analyzes what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning. Our findings suggest that dogs can also do all that, and they use very similar brain mechanisms.”5

Dogs Also Tune Into Our Posture, Gestures and Eye Contact

Despite your dog’s ability to understand some of the words you say, there may be more effective ways to communicate with her, such as visually. Your posture, gestures and eye contact can speak volumes, and your dog pays attention to these cues closely. In fact, dogs can follow our gaze much like a 6-month-old infant, but only if we convey the intention of communication, which suggests they’re quite tuned into our communicative signals.6

There are many theories as to why and how dogs developed such strong responsiveness to human gestures. It could be simply that they spend more time around humans than other species, or that they quickly learned paying close attention might get them more rewards (like food). As reported in the journal Behavioral Processes:

“Dogs are more skillful than a host of other species at tasks which require they respond to human communicative gestures in order to locate hidden food. Four basic interpretations for this proficiency surface from distilling the research findings.

One possibility is that dogs simply have more opportunity than other species to learn to be responsive to human social cues. A different analysis suggests that the domestication process provided an opening for dogs to apply general cognitive problem-solving skills to a novel social niche.

Some researchers go beyond this account and propose that dogs' co-evolution with humans equipped them with a theory of mind for social exchanges.

Finally, a more prudent approach suggests that sensitivity to the behaviors of both humans and conspecifics would be particularly advantageous for a social scavenger like the dog. A predisposition to attend to human actions allows for rapid early learning of the association between gestures and the availability of food.”7

How Does Your Dog Communicate With You?

While we use speech as a primary form of communicating, your dog may “talk” to you using different forms of communication, such as tail movements. Dogs display submission by tucking their tails and lying on their backs. They display dominance by staring, raising their fur and baring their teeth.

Further, dogs tend to wag their tails to the right side when they encounter something pleasant (like their owners). When they see something threatening, for example a strange dog exhibiting dominant behaviors, they wag more to the left side.8 Certain species of canines also use their eyes to communicate, and the fact that your dog will make direct eye contact with you may be one important feature that distinguishes him from wild dogs, or wolves.9