Yes, Your Dog Is Listening To You. Here's How
The next time you ask, "Who's a good boy?" and your dog wags his tail, take heart: A new study suggests that this good boy ("yes he is") understands both the words in your message as well as the emotion behind your best cutesy voice. In fact, when we chat with our dogs, their canine noggins respond in a remarkably similar manner to the way human brains process language, according to a pair of psychologists from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.
Dogs can recognize certain words as well as the way we speak them, and these two aspects of speech "appear to be processed in different areas of the dog's brain," said Victoria Ratcliffe, an author of the study published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology, in a statement. When dogs and humans hear a noise, it primarily engages the half of our brains opposite the source of sound - the noise essentially goes in one ear and heads toward the other. Ratcliffe and her colleague David Reby, therefore, could tell which side of the brain the dogs favored by the direction they swiveled their ears.
But what happens when sounds are played simultaneously from both sides? To find out, Ratcliffe and Reby placed two speakers an equal distance away, one on either side of a dog, and played a few different recordings of human speech to the animals.
In this short video, sounds are played from both sides, but the dog turns his head. (Credit: Ratcliffe et al.)
In one part of the experiment, a familiar command ("come on, then") was digitally stripped of any emotional tone. Hearing this, the dogs turned to the right to process the message - the human equivalent of thinking about the dictionary definition of a word. When the intonation of the message was artificially pumped up, the dogs turned left, using the other side of their brains to decipher tone or emotion. The study is even more evidence that dogs are listening "not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say," Ratcliffe said.
Dogs aren't going to be composing poetry anytime soon, though, as Tufts University veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, who was not involved with this research, told CBS News. But, he emphasized, this study shows just how attuned dogs are to the emotion and words in our voices.
Not only do behavioral studies like this support the idea of canine understanding, but MRI scans also indicate that dogs have brain patterns that mimic those in humans. Despite the roughly 30,000 years dogs have spent alongside humans, dogs don't interpret speech in our word-for-word way, Ratcliffe cautioned. But that doesn't mean dogs have weak vocabularies - take Chaser, whose 1,000-word-repertoire is certainly nothing to wag a stick at.