Your Dog Understands What You Say And How You Say It

It doesn’t matter what tone you use when you speak to your dog, he can recognize and understand your words, according to a new study.

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Dogs listen to and understand human speech much the way humans do. Wassiliy/iStock/Thinkstock
Dogs listen to and understand human speech much the way humans do. Wassiliy/iStock/Thinkstock
Stephanie Brown

Do people ever call you crazy for talking to your dog like he actually understands what you’re saying? Well, guess what — he does, according to scientists. (Who’s the crazy one now?)

Researchers in Hungary studied the brain activity of dogs and found that canines not only understand the words we speak, but also how we say them.

The study, published in the journal Science and led by Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, confirmed that dogs can distinguish words and the intonation of human speech much the same way as humans do.

“We trained dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner awake and unrestrained for several minutes,” Andics told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science. “We let them listen to their trainer’s speech and at the same time we measured their brain activities.”

Dogs, mainly Golden Retrievers and Border Collies, were trained to sit still in an MRI scanner and listen to recordings of human speech while scientists monitored their brain activity. Photo by Enik Kubinyi

Dogs, mainly Golden Retrievers and Border Collies, were trained to sit still in an MRI scanner and listen to recordings of human speech while scientists monitored their brain activity. Photo by Enik Kubinyi

The dogs listened to recordings of their trainers saying various combinations of words and intonation, in both praising and neutral ways. For example, trainers spoke praise words with a praising intonation, praise words with a neutral intonation, neutral words with a praising intonation, and neutral words with neutral intonation.

Andics and his colleagues found that, regardless of the tone used, the dogs were able to process the words, recognizing each one as distinct — with their brains processing the words in a way that’s very similar to the way our brains do. What’s more, the positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted the strongest response in the brain’s reward centers.

“This shows… that dogs not only separate what we say from how we say it, but also that they can combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant,” Andics told AAAS.

So go ahead and keep talking to your dog. They are really good listeners after all.

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