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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2325 Comments
  • sydney_zepp
    sydney_zeppTuesday, February 9, 2021 at 7:18 am
    I have a Border Heeler (Border Collie x Blue Heeler) and she's 12 weeks old so she's still just a baby, but she's so cute! If you've ever seen those two dogs, they are usually both black and white or a a blue black color, but she is a light tan And white color! She's so cute! I used to have a black Labrador retriever named Poppy but my sister took her with her when she moved. I also had a Yellow Lab named Ginger who we had to give to another family because she needed another dog to be with.
    • sydney_zepp
      sydney_zeppTuesday, February 9, 2021 at 7:19 am
      The dog in the picture, Caylin is a border collie, and my puppy looks like that only tan and white.
    • xepafamywajope
      xepafamywajopeMonday, February 1, 2021 at 6:24 am
      i have 3 dogs
      • xepafamywajope
        xepafamywajopeMonday, February 1, 2021 at 6:16 am
        I have ruger he is pitbull,tank he is a boxer and the bear my black lab retriever
        • ultrajango
          ultrajangoThursday, January 21, 2021 at 5:15 am
          I like dogs and I want a German shepherd🐕❤
          • supernoob999
            supernoob999Wednesday, February 3, 2021 at 6:52 am
            i have 3 german shepherds there cute 1 is a baby
            • sydney_zepp
              sydney_zeppTuesday, February 9, 2021 at 7:14 am
              Wow! That's so cool!
          • zaks
            zaksWednesday, January 20, 2021 at 4:08 pm
            I love dogs! I have a male golden doodle named Oscar, he is super cute.
            • sydney_zepp
              sydney_zeppTuesday, February 9, 2021 at 7:13 am
              @zaks Aww! Goldendoodles are adorable!
            • linklegend2021
              linklegend2021Friday, January 15, 2021 at 1:43 pm
              I have two German Shepard s and they play alot
              • selena_7638
                selena_7638Thursday, January 14, 2021 at 12:28 pm
                dogs are adorable
                • selena_7638
                  selena_7638Thursday, January 14, 2021 at 12:23 pm
                  OMG SO CUTE! i can barley reseist!
                  • mrmanguy
                    mrmanguyWednesday, January 13, 2021 at 7:33 am
                    ninjas ears are cool the dog in the picture
                    • mrmanguy
                      mrmanguyWednesday, January 13, 2021 at 7:26 am
                      i love cats but i also love dogs