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
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  1. What mystery were Emory researchers trying to solve with the new study?
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1901 Comments
  • BelleMonday, March 25, 2019 at 8:51 am
    It’s so sad.
    • Derp DanceMonday, March 25, 2019 at 7:48 am
      aw that's so cool
      • goiooebc2iheqbcSunday, March 24, 2019 at 9:07 pm
        no
        • doggolover69420Sunday, March 24, 2019 at 9:06 pm
          i love dog, i have dog she is 1 year old. i think this really cool and i love it.
          • MaxSaturday, March 23, 2019 at 2:57 pm
            That is amazing...just WOW
            • lil_loki
              lil_lokiThursday, March 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm
              T0T I want a dog sooooo bad! My mom, brother, and maybe my sister now are allergic to their adorable fluffyness and cute lil tongue!!! I THEY GET ME AND I GET THEM NOW AND I NOW KNOW THAT IT IS A FACT OF SCIENCE
              • EmmaThursday, March 21, 2019 at 4:10 pm
                I love dogs!
                • OOOOOOFThursday, March 21, 2019 at 11:56 am
                  WHATS SAD OOOF
                  • cowgirllove
                    cowgirlloveThursday, March 21, 2019 at 11:07 am
                    I would rather have a horse and riding free in the wind. That is why my name is cowgirl love. Plz follow me.
                    • weadyboyherp22Wednesday, March 20, 2019 at 12:41 pm
                      dogs are the worst animals ever, I wrote this just to get your attention I actually love dogs thumbs up if you agree

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