Scientists Inquire: Can Dogs Actually Tell the Difference Between Human Words?

Tuesday, 16 October 2018 - 11:29AM
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Tuesday, 16 October 2018 - 11:29AM
Scientists Inquire: Can Dogs Actually Tell the Difference Between Human Words?
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Most dog owners feel a special connection with their pet. They speak to it like a child or friend and are convinced that the dog understands, but just how much of what you say is actually getting through to those floppy ears? A recent study conducted by researchers at Emory University sought to answer that question, but the answer may not be exactly what puppy fans want to hear.

"Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn't much scientific evidence to support that," said Ashley Prichard, first author of the study recently published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. "We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports." According to Prichard's colleague and senior author of the study Gregory Berns, the fact that dogs can learn verbal commands shows that they are able to process some of what we say, but previous studies have suggested that they also get necessary information from non-verbal cues like gestures, expressions, and looks. The Emory scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the brains of twelve trained dogs would react when they were shown a pair of toys and heard the words that corresponded with each toy. The dogs were also told gibberish words and shown alternate objects. What's interesting is that the dogs had more of a response in the auditory regions of their brains to the words that they didn't know.

"We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don't," said Prichard. "What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." The scientists think that spike in brain activity is the dogs' attempt to understand what the owners want them to. "Dogs ultimately want to please their owners," Berns said, "and perhaps also receive praise or food." Different breeds showed increased activity in different brain regions, but none of the breeds in the study appeared to fully comprehend what they were being told. "Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response," said Berns.

In case you wanted more salt in that wound, the researchers argue that for training purposes visual and scent cues may be more effective than spoken commands. In other words, the words you say to your dog are probably inconsequential, but keep the treats coming and your pet will hang on your every word.
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