The Amazing Mental Capacity of Dogs

Dogs Process Language Similarly to Humans

-By, Juliet Isselbacher

All dog-owners intrinsically know what a recent study has just confirmed: our dogs understand both what we say and how we say it. Winsor’s own Ms. Stern shares, “Lucy, my nine year old long-haired mini dachshund, definitely understands me. Sometimes when she is whiny I have even found myself saying to her, ‘Use your words!’ Of course,” she adds, “Whether or not she chooses to actually listen to me is another story.”

The Family Dog Project, a lab in the Department of Ethology at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, published this study. The lead researcher, Dr. Attila Andics, describes himself as specializing in species-specificity of how we perceive individuals, how we learn about others, and how we process language, from an evolutionary perspective.”

The study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which deduces brain activity based on changes in blood oxygenation and flow. The fMRI images indicated that positive words like “good” or “clever” activated the dogs’ left hemispheres (associated with logic), while a praising tone activated their right (associated with emotion). Yet, only when positive words were spoken in a corresponding praising tone did the dogs’ reward centers light up. Neutral words like “however” spoken in a praising tone and, likewise, positive words spoken in a neutral tone elicited no such response.

Dr. Andics discusses the implications of these findings: “So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it but also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant.” But that’s not all — most striking is the fact that human brains perform this same independent processing and subsequent integration of meaning and intonation. It seems, then, that our ability to process speech is not a uniquely human evolution but rather an ability descended from a common ancestor. Jordan S., a Class VII dog-owner, remarks, “This study isn’t surprising to me at all–it confirms what I’ve always known.”