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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2185 Comments
  • swagalicious21
    swagalicious21Monday, April 6, 2020 at 7:43 am
    my neighbor's dog knows the command "hump" and randomly does it to me when i'm playing basketball
    • i_like_potatoes
      i_like_potatoesMonday, April 6, 2020 at 7:40 am
      #Dogs_Are_Life
      • galaxy52
        galaxy52Saturday, April 4, 2020 at 12:11 pm
        #Dogs are the best
        • zu0113
          zu0113Thursday, April 2, 2020 at 10:09 am
          DOGS FOREVER!!
          • apex_games297
            apex_games297Thursday, April 2, 2020 at 7:02 am
            Follow if you think dogs are cute.
            • augy
              augyWednesday, April 1, 2020 at 11:52 am
              I would love it if dogs could understand me and then talk back.
              • cream
                creamWednesday, April 1, 2020 at 10:44 am
                I love dogs . I find them cute and the pics of the dogs r cute.
                • animereina25
                  animereina25Tuesday, March 31, 2020 at 11:36 am
                  I have two dogs, one is older than the other, and I consider them brother and sister. I also agree that dogs can understand us because when I usually talk to my friends about them, (depends if I am talking about the day one of them ruined my carpet, or how one of them learned a new trick). If it is something good about them , they look all happy and like to jump on me... If it is bad, then they look all guilty with their tails down... If it is something that offends them, then they will widen their eyes and try to bite me... I love both of my dogs and try to figure out what they want when they try to grab my attention. It is really fun to see what they can get into... 🐶🐕🐩🐕‍🦺
                  • thatgirlleilei
                    thatgirlleileiWednesday, April 1, 2020 at 1:20 pm
                    I have 5 🐕s
                  • iguess23523
                    iguess23523Tuesday, March 31, 2020 at 8:36 am
                    cool:)
                    • janan10
                      janan10Saturday, March 28, 2020 at 7:43 am
                      I love DOGS🐕🐶