Your dog gets you. I mean, he really gets you.
No, really – he actually does. So say scientists in Hungary, who have published a groundbreaking study that found dogs understand both the meaning of words and the intonation used to speak them. Put simply: Even if you use a very excited tone of voice to tell the dog he’s going to the vet, he’ll 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. 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, Attila Andics and colleagues at Eötvös Loránd 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. (The pups were not restrained, and they “could leave the scanner at any time,” the authors assured.) A video of the test can be found here.
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 analyzed 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 center” – which is stimulated by pleasant things such as petting and 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,” Andics said in a statement. “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’s 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’s probably far more ancient.
That means we aren’t as special as we like to think, at least when it comes to how our brains deal with language. What makes words uniquely human, Andics said, is that we came up with using them.