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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2248 Comments
  • animereina25
    animereina25Friday, May 8, 2020 at 9:58 am
    I had a dog when I was younger, and she was a Apple headed Chihuahua. She died sadly. My parents told me they believed she died from being too old. But I think she died from a car, because I have a reoccurring dream about her dying from a car😢 This happened when I was like 4 years old...
    • animereina25
      animereina25Wednesday, May 20, 2020 at 12:34 pm
      Thanks guys
      • mesodog
        mesodogWednesday, May 20, 2020 at 9:02 am
        That's so sad! I'm never gonna dream about dying dogs now I don't want my dog to die!
        • 4usa
          4usaTuesday, May 19, 2020 at 11:39 am
          On no I am so sorry. My dog died of cancer about two years ago.
          • galaxy_fox12
            galaxy_fox12Tuesday, May 19, 2020 at 8:23 am
            I’m sorry for your loss 😢 my friend’s dog died from cancer 2 years ago
          • mesodog
            mesodogTuesday, May 5, 2020 at 4:25 pm
            This was really cool the whole video I was thinking about talking to dogs!
            • animereina25
              animereina25Tuesday, April 28, 2020 at 1:54 pm
              Just walked Eve (my dog) several minutes ago! Eve got sooooo energized! As I was walking her, she kept on biting the leash, and wouldn't let go. She thought that I was playing games with her...
              • mesodog
                mesodogWednesday, May 20, 2020 at 9:04 am
                my dog bites on the leash to. I'm petting her now trying to type!
              • elena_likes_dog
                elena_likes_dogTuesday, April 28, 2020 at 12:54 pm
                I LOVE DOGS!!! Cats are ok.
                • mesodog
                  mesodogWednesday, May 20, 2020 at 9:21 am
                  yep! as true as can be
                • heelllo
                  heellloMonday, April 27, 2020 at 1:46 pm
                  funny
                  • zztrooo
                    zztroooMonday, April 27, 2020 at 11:52 am
                    this is the cutest thing in the world😍😍
                    • c01e
                      c01eMonday, April 27, 2020 at 10:16 am
                      5 out of 5 Paws !
                      • diesel_baby09
                        diesel_baby09Monday, April 27, 2020 at 7:48 am
                        Hi everyone I am in 5th grade going into 6th grade and I have three dogs of my own and they are so adorable. Their names are Durango, Diesel, and Bear. I just love dogs so so so so much!!
                        • roxanne3
                          roxanne3Tuesday, May 19, 2020 at 10:31 am
                          I have 2 dogs called Judy and Ree, I love them so much!!
                          • animereina25
                            animereina25Friday, May 8, 2020 at 9:47 am
                            I have 2 dogs❤ Lucky and eve.
                            • elena_likes_dog
                              elena_likes_dogTuesday, April 28, 2020 at 12:53 pm
                              I have 4 dogs. There name is Mocha, Dona, Perro, and Luna. I LOVE dogs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!😍😍😍😋😋
                              • doogoo
                                doogooWednesday, May 13, 2020 at 7:13 am
                                I have 2 named Bella and Emma
                              • animal_love
                                animal_loveMonday, May 11, 2020 at 8:41 pm
                                Wow you have a lot of dogs I have one dog.
                            • kinspower10
                              kinspower10Friday, April 24, 2020 at 3:39 pm
                              Sooooooooooo CUTE!!!!!
                              • animereina25
                                animereina25Friday, April 24, 2020 at 1:40 pm
                                Eve is a Maltese dashund mix, and has a light brown coat, with a few wrinkles that make her look cute❤ Lucky is a Chihuahua terrier mix, and used to be a tan color mixed with a white coat... but he is getting older and is now the same age as me (13, but in dog years, so he is soooo much older).