study proves dogs understand our words and intonation

Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Oct 13 2016
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“It’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it” is true for both humans and dogs, according to howling new research. Hungarian scientists have proven something most dog lovers take for granted: dogs understand our words and intonation. This exciting finding can help us better study, train and interact with our beloved canine companions.

in short

The purpose of the research was to determine if dogs understand human words, respond to different emotional tones and what regions of the brain are activated when they hear different words and tones.

In simplest terms, they discovered that dogs comprehend the meaning of words and interpret the emotions in our sounds using the same parts of the brain humans use for communication. That’s a pretty big deal.

the nitty gritty

According to MRI results, canines felt a sense of reward only when the words and tone matched praise. For example, when they heard a recording of their owner saying “well done!” in a happy tone, the part of the brain associated with positive rewards was activated. If the owner said a neutral word like “however” in a happy tone, the dog’s brain didn’t respond in the same way.

The MRI showed left brain activity when the praise word was coupled with a happy tone. Humans use the left side to process words we recognize and understand.

When dogs heard the neutral word in a happy or neutral tone, right brain activity was recorded. Humans use this region to comprehend emotion, but not necessarily language.

What does all that mean? Dogs appear to use the same parts of their brains as humans in interpreting our words and tones.

sit, stay…for eight minutes

One of the more head-scratching aspects of this study was how the scientists got the dogs’ MRIs in the first place! They had to train the dogs to lie completely still for eight minutes during the MRI scans without any anesthesia or drugs. Further complicating matters, the dogs had to wear an electronic halo of wires and don a set of bulky headphones.

The study group consisted of mostly untrained canines: six Border Collies, five Golden Retrievers, a German Shepherd and a tiny Chinese Crested. At first they tried highly-trained dogs, but discovered if the canines didn’t get a treat in about 30 seconds, they failed. The trained dogs also couldn’t grasp that their job was to do absolutely nothing – just lay still. The researchers found that younger, untrained dogs were more easily trained to lay on the noisy, moving MRI table without licking, yawning or flinching.

anything you do, I can do better

To train the dogs, they used a positive training technique known as the model-rival training method. You’re familiar with it; this is how many humans learn some lessons in life! If you see someone get recognized or promoted for something they did at school or work, you might try to do it better.

In this case, the dogs observe another dog who’s modeling the desired behavior and receiving a lot of attention and praise. The observing dogs begin to associate praise with the modeled behavior. They become friendly “rivals” and strive to one-up the behavior, performing it longer and longer.

In this way, there’s a revolving door of dogs trying to lie still a little longer than the last pooch to receive praise. This technique was highly effective at training the dogs, even though some of the owners could only bring them in for training once a month.

For those of us involved in animal training, this proves once again the power of positive learning techniques over negative reinforcement methods. For researchers, it’s changing the notion that we need anesthesia or drugs to conduct MRI studies on dogs. Both of these incidental findings have huge implications for how we’ll study and train dogs in the future.

Man’s best friend continues to awe and amaze. I always knew they understood us. Now it’s a scientific fact.