They Scanned Dogs’ Brains, Made an Intriguing Discovery About Our Talk

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

can dogs understand humans

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fascinating research from Budapest reveals that dogs hear not only what we say, but how we say it
  • Similar to us, our dogs use the left hemisphere of their brains to process meaningful words, and the right hemisphere to process vocal tones
  • To light up the reward center of your dog’s brain, praise him using an upbeat tone of voice

Not long ago, researchers in Budapest published a fascinating study that looked at how dogs' brains process human speech.1 They came to the conclusion that our canine friends listen not only to what we say, but how we say it.

The scientists discovered that when we praise our dogs, the reward centers in their brains perk up if the words we use match our tone of voice. These findings suggest the ability to process words evolved much earlier than was originally thought and may not be unique to humans. According to Phys.org, the study shows:

"[T]hat 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."2

Dogs May Use Brain Mechanisms Very Similar to Ours to Process What We Say

For their study, the researchers recruited 13 family dogs — primarily Border Collies and Golden Retrievers — who excelled at lying completely still in an fMRI scanner, facilitating analysis of their brain activity. The dogs were volunteer study participants, meaning they were never restrained inside the scanner and could leave at any time.

The researchers recorded a trainer's voice saying certain phrases with varying types of intonation. In the recordings, the trainer praised the dogs using Hungarian words and phrases that in English translate to "good boy," "super" and "well done." The words were spoken in both an upbeat tone and a neutral tone. The trainer also used neutral words like "however," and "nevertheless" that meant nothing to the dogs.

While the recording played, the researchers studied the scans for regions of the dogs' brains that were differentiating between the praise and meaningless words, as well as praise and neutral tones of voice. They observed that the dogs used the left hemisphere to process meaningful (but not meaningless) words, and the right hemisphere to process vocal tones. Per Phys.org:

"This was the same auditory brain region that this group of researchers previously found in dogs for processing emotional non-speech sounds from both dogs and humans, suggesting that intonation processing mechanisms are not specific to speech."

Lead researcher Attila Andics of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest 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."3

To Make Your Dog Light Up, Praise Him With Your 'Happy Voice'

The researchers further observed from the scans that the dogs' reward centers (the region of the brain that processes enjoyable sensations) were strongly triggered by praise, but only when the praise was spoken in an encouraging, positive tone.

All other combinations of words and vocal tones resulted in much less reward center activity. For example, when the trainer said "good boy" in a neutral tone, or "however" in either a positive or neutral tone, the result was the same — the dogs' reward centers didn't light up. According to Andics:

"It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match. So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant. Again, this is very similar to what human brains do."4

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Processing Words Doesn't Necessarily Mean Understanding Their Meaning

"One important thing is that we don't claim that dogs understand everything we say, of course," Andics told The Huffington Post in an email.5 There can be a difference between a dog processing words for their familiarity and actually understanding the words as we intend. As study co-author Adam Miklosi, Ph.D., head of the Family Dog Project told Scientific American magazine:

"'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."6

An important result of the study is that it demonstrates the left hemisphere of dogs' brains processes meaningful words separate from the vocal tone. This suggests your dog may understand that "good dog" is praise regardless of the tone of voice you use when you say it, because he recognizes those words as meaningful versus meaningless.

"We think that intonation is important," says Miklosi. "Owners should learn how to praise a dog, and then use the same expression in similar way. Consistency in praising and in general in communication with the dog is important."7

The researchers suspect they would have similar results in studies of other domestic animals like cats and horses, as long as the animals had lived among humans. They hope this study and subsequent research can be used to enhance communication and cooperation between dogs and humans.