Saturday 19 August 2017

Pet owners rejoice: Dogs understand what we say and how we say it, scientists find

Dogs were placed in an MRI scanner to study their brains
Dogs were placed in an MRI scanner to study their brains
The researchers trained 13 dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner so their brains could be monitored
The reward centre in a dog's brain is only active when intonation and word meaning match up

Sarah Knapton

Dog owners have long argued that their pets can understand what they are saying, and now science has proven them correct.

A new study has shown that dogs use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the meaning of words, and their right side to work out the intonation – exactly the same way humans process language.

It means that dogs can pick up when their owners are not being consistent in their language and tone.

For example when a dog is praised the reward centre of its brain fires up, but only if a praising tone is used. If an owner says ‘good boy’ in a listless, subdued manner the dog will know it is not really being praised.

The researchers trained 13 dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner so their brains could be monitored
The researchers trained 13 dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner so their brains could be monitored

Likewise anyone who has wondered why a dog will not stop licking their face as they laughingly tell them to stop, now has an explanation.

“We humans love talking to dogs, we call them by names, praise them, scold them but quite little is known about how dogs interpret out words,” said lead researcher Dr Attila Andics of Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

“Many people would propose dogs might care about how we intonate but what we say might not be so important to them. We decided to look into the brain. We trained the dogs to lie motionless. We let them listen to their trainers speech. Dogs sometimes heard praise words and other occasions they hear praise words in a non-praising intonation. We tested for brain regions that respond different for words.

“The results showed something very interesting. Dogs do care about what we say and how we say it, and the mechanism is very similar to that of humans. Dogs can also tell apart word meaning and word intonation.”

The study is the first of its kind to investigate how dog brains process speech.

The researchers trained 13 dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner so their brains could be monitored while they listened to recordings of their trainers saying various phrases, such as ‘Well done’ ‘clever’ and ‘good boy.’ The phrases were either said in an appropriate or inappropriate tone.

The reward centre in a dog's brain is only active when intonation and word meaning match up
The reward centre in a dog's brain is only active when intonation and word meaning match up

“Dogs heard praise words in praising intonation, praise words in neutral intonation, and also neutral conjunction words, meaningless to them, in praising and neutral intonations,” said PhD student Anna Gábor, one of the study authors.

“We looked for brain regions that differentiated between meaningful and meaningless words, or between praising and non-praising intonations.”

The brain images showed that dogs prefer to use their left hemisphere to process meaningful but not meaningless words.

However dogs activate a right hemisphere brain area to tell apart praising and non-praising intonation.

The team also found that praise activated dogs’ reward center – the brain region which responds to all sorts of pleasurable stimuli, like food, sex, being petted, or music in humans. Crucially, the reward center was active only when dogs heard praise words in praising intonation.

“It turned out that when we praise a dog it activates the reward centre of their brain but only if word meaning and intonation are praising,” added Dr Andics.

 “So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant. Again, this is very similar to what human brains do.

“Using words may be a human invention but now we see that the neural connections used to process them are not uniquely human.”

The research was published in the journal Science. 

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