Dogs know what you say and how you say it: Study

A golden retriever interacting with researcher Anna Gabor. Using brain activity images, scientists in Hungary found that dogs processed familiar words like "that's it" and "clever" regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere,
A golden retriever interacting with researcher Anna Gabor. Using brain activity images, scientists in Hungary found that dogs processed familiar words like "that's it" and "clever" regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans.PHOTO: VILJA AND VANDA MOLNAR

They get the meaning and the tone, and are more like humans than was earlier known

Your dog gets you.

I mean, he really gets you.

So say scientists in Hungary, who have published a ground-breaking study that found dogs understand both the meaning of words and the intonation used.

Put simply, even if you use a very excited tone of voice to tell the dog he is going to the vet, he will probably see through you and be bummed about going.

It had already been established that dogs respond to human voices better than their wolf brethren, are able to match hundreds of objects to words and can be directed by human speech.

RESPONDING TO HUMANS

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.

DR ATTILA ANDICS, on the results of MRI scans of family dogs.

But the new findings mean dogs are more like humans than was previously known. They process language using the same regions of the brain as people, according to the researchers, whose paper was published in Science.

To determine this, Dr Attila Andics and his colleagues at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest recruited 13 family dogs - mostly golden retrievers and border collies - and trained them to sit totally still for seven minutes in an fMRI scanner that measured their brain activity.

A female trainer familiar to the dogs then spoke words of praise that all their owners said they used - "that's it", "clever" and "well done" - and neutral words such as "yet" and "if", which the researchers believed were meaningless to the animals.

Each dog heard each word in both a neutral tone and a happy, "atta boy" tone.

Using the brain activity images, the researchers saw that the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans. Tone, on the other hand, was analysed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere, just as it is in people, the study said.

And finally, they saw that the dogs' "rewards centre" - which is stimulated by pleasant things such as petting, food and sex - did the brain equivalent of jumping and yelping when positive words were spoken in a positive tone.

"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," said Dr Andics.

"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."

The researchers said it is unlikely that human selection of dogs during their domestication, which occurred at least 15,000 years ago, could have led to this sort of brain function. Instead, they say, it is probably far more ancient.

That means we are not as special as we like to think, at least when it comes to how our brains deal with language. What makes words uniquely human is that we came up with using them, Dr Andics said.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2016, with the headline 'Dogs know what you say and how you say it: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe