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Can dogs understand words?

Have you ever wondered to what extent your dog can truly understand what you say?

Researchers in the EU decided to put this question to the ultimate test by putting dogs inside MRI machines and measuring the effect of speaking to them. The first obstacle was training the dogs to co-operate because for the scanning to work the dogs have to be completely still and they had to wear headphones!

After achieving this the researchers play recordings of their owner’s voices to the dogs. The recordings contained both the owners praise words and the owner’s everyday speech. There was also variation in tone ranging from encouraging to flat.

The scans showed changing activity in their brains as they listened to their owner’s voices. All the words used showed an increase in activity in the left hand side of the brain – whether they were praise words or not. The changes in tone however showed up in the left hand side of the brain.

To measure whether this meant anything they simultaneously measured activity in an area of the brain called the “reward centre”.

Now here comes the spooky bit…………

Only when the tone was encouraging and the word was a praise word did the reward centre light up! In other words (no pun intended) it’s not just what we say but how we say it that matters to dogs.

I guess most of us knew that from our own experience didn’t we. But what we didn’t know was just how similarly the mechanisms and patterns in the dog’s brains matched the way that humans process speech. Scientists think that the basic evolution of the dog’s brain and ours are identical.

Its just that we have added words and dogs have added barks.