New Study Reveals How Well Dogs Understand Human Language

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Every dog owner finds themselves praying to the heavens that their furry friend could understand the human language. We tell dogs what to do, whether it to sit, stay, or come here, but these are commands they are conditioned to obey. Do we ever think about how much of human speech dogs can comprehend? Well, thanks to a new study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, we have new insight into just how well dogs understand our language.

Photo by Crew on Unsplash

The fact that we can teach dogs tricks makes it clear that at some level, they are capable of understanding the way we communicate. Dogs have been taught all sorts of tricks, from laying down and rolling over, to even playing dead, which, by the way, is endlessly adorable. But are they capable of truly differentiating between command words and non-words inside their brains? This is what the study set out to determine.

The 12-pup study started out with owners spending ten minutes every day training the canines to retrieve a stuffed monkey toy named “monkey” or a rubber pig toy named “piggy”. After several months of training, the dogs were brought to Emory University, where they were instructed to lie in a fMRI scanner. The toys were placed in front of the dog, and the owner would say “monkey” or “piggy” and hold up the respective toy. Brain scans showed little to no activity in the dogs.

However, when a random object was held up and paired with a gibberish word like “ bobrick” or “bobby”, the fMRI detected heightened brain activity. Ashley Pritchard, co-author of the study, explains “The most exciting finding is probably that the greater neural activation to pseudowords [gibberish] over the trained words in dogs is different than what is common in human language studies. In human fMRI, greater brain activation to pseudowords than known words means that humans are likely trying to associate meaning with the pseudowords that sound similar to words they already know.”

As the dog hears these gibberish words, Prichards says that they are most likely trying to understand these unfamiliar words, in an attempt to please us. Due to natural selection, dogs to want to please us in return for the rewards and affection we give them. It makes sense that they would want to try and understand the meaning behind these new, nonsense words. Meanwhile, the study showed that most of the canine participants demonstrated the ability to retrieve the two toys they had been trained to recognize solely by hearing “piggy” or “monkey” thanks to reinforced visual training in the months preceding the study. This is a fascinating insight into how dogs understand the way we speak to them. Pritchard concludes, “I hope that this research is a step towards better human-dog interactions.”

Avid writer and reader with a curious mind. I'm always looking to get the most out of life! Follow me on Twitter @whatsaschoon

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