Yes, Your Dog Does Understand You!

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Eddie, one of the study’s participants with his two toys – “monkey” and “piggy” (Credit: Gregory Berns/Emory University)

Most dog owners are convinced that their four-legged friends know exactly what they mean when they use certain words like sit, stay, or treat. However, researchers have always wondered whether canines really understand human speech or if they rely on other clues to deduce the meaning. For example, does the word “fetch” conjure up an image of a stick or ball in the dog’s mind, or does the pooch retrieve the object based on cues such as the owner’s tone or gesture? A new study by scientists at Atlanta’s Emory University seems to indicate that “man’s best friend” is not faking it – he/she does indeed know what the owner is saying.

“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that. We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports,” said Ashley Prichard, a Ph.D. at Emory’s Department of Psychology and the study’s first author.

Graph (Credit: Emory University/frontiersin.org)

The researchers began by asking the owners of twelve dogs of various breeds to train their pets to identify two toys with different textures - such as a stuffed animal and a ball - by name. Once the dogs had mastered the task, they took turns inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI). The owners then tested their pooch’s language prowess by first calling out the names of the toys they had been trained to recognize and then saying meaningless words such as “bobbu” and “bodmick” while holding up random objects the dogs hadn’t seen before.

The fMRI scans revealed that the regions of the dogs’ brains responsible for auditory processing showed different brain patterns when they heard words they were familiar with, compared with the ones they had never encountered before. While not enough to prove that the dogs were picturing their toys when they heard the word, it did indicate some sort of recognition. The researchers believe this is an important step forward in understanding how dogs process language.

All the participants of the study with their toys (Credit: Emory University/frontiersin.org)

Even more intriguing was that the dog’s brains showed a higher level of neural activity at the sound of unknown words. This is the exact opposite of what happens in human brains, which get more active at the sound of familiar words. The researchers hypothesize the dogs may be perking up at the sound of new words to try to understand them in the hopes of delighting their masters. "Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food," says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Burns, senior author of the study.

However, though your pet may understand human speech, the scientists recommend using visual and scent cues for training. “When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard says. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”

Resources: cbsnews.com, gizmondo.com, fmri.org, earthsky.org

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auditorycaninesconjureconvincedcuesdeduceencounteredgesturehypothesizeintriguingmasteredneuralperspectiveprowessrandomrecognitionrecommendretrievetexturesultimatelyvisual
2109 Comments
  • crazytaco1
    crazytaco1Friday, January 17, 2020 at 7:29 pm
    #DogsAreTheBest
    • pusojawe-156979816439
      pusojawe-156979816439Friday, January 10, 2020 at 11:37 am
      My dog is a dashund his name is : Charlie
      • youngauba
        youngaubaFriday, January 10, 2020 at 8:33 am
        eddie looks like my dog who past away on january 7 2020 😭🐶🐶💔
        • ehdilmnvfghj
          ehdilmnvfghjSaturday, January 18, 2020 at 11:30 pm
          So sorry that is sad 😭
          • lizardlia
            lizardliaSaturday, January 18, 2020 at 9:30 am
            That's sad.
            • crazytaco1
              crazytaco1Friday, January 17, 2020 at 7:28 pm
              I'm sorry to hear that
            • smashsomehash
              smashsomehashTuesday, January 7, 2020 at 7:23 pm
              I have a dog named Elwood. He is a mutt.
              • ehdilmnvfghj
                ehdilmnvfghjSaturday, January 18, 2020 at 11:31 pm
                Cool 😎
              • ghost_dk_diemx
                ghost_dk_diemxMonday, December 23, 2019 at 10:44 pm
                This reminds me of those movies where the animal speaks but it's flipped around a little bit to where the animal can only understand- That's so cool though!!! #TheMoreYouKnow
                • luna123546
                  luna123546Monday, January 6, 2020 at 7:14 am
                  yah u are right but i love it so much #doggies
                • penguin777
                  penguin777Saturday, December 21, 2019 at 12:21 pm
                  Whoa this is weird
                  • jesse_garcia
                    jesse_garciaTuesday, December 17, 2019 at 5:48 pm
                    cats are better JK I have two dogs they are a silver schnauzer and a mini pinscher but cats are still adorable
                    • crazytaco1
                      crazytaco1Friday, January 17, 2020 at 7:29 pm
                      dogs are better
                      • mcgra622
                        mcgra622Thursday, December 19, 2019 at 8:30 pm
                        In my opinon i like both the same.
                      • carebear0518
                        carebear0518Monday, December 16, 2019 at 11:45 am
                        What if we are talking about the dogs bday or Christmas presents Dose the dog know what your getting it 😦😦😦😦
                        • luna123546
                          luna123546Monday, January 6, 2020 at 7:15 am
                          HAHA thats funny but u are right #bday
                        • falco_lombardi
                          falco_lombardiThursday, December 12, 2019 at 6:55 am
                          Yes... it's all clear now... The dogs will take over the world... it's called dogonews for a reason... they wanted to warn us.. (i'm just joking :D)
                          • cheezeitband
                            cheezeitbandFriday, January 17, 2020 at 7:10 pm
                            Hopefully.......
                            • ghost_dk_diemx
                              ghost_dk_diemxMonday, December 23, 2019 at 10:45 pm
                              Lol! Good one. ;>
                              • carebear0518
                                carebear0518Monday, December 16, 2019 at 11:43 am
                                That's funny 😂😂 I call my dogs dogos To please follow me I will follow you 😉
                              • zutyfawa-156829614152
                                zutyfawa-156829614152Tuesday, December 10, 2019 at 8:38 am
                                so adorable