Fortunately, the latest revelation in dog science isn’t a downer. A new study, conducted by the Family Dog Project in Hungary and published in Science, says our canine companions can understand the meaning and tone of human speech, and that they process language in the same way humans do.
“As with people’s brains, parts of dogs’ left hemisphere react to meaning and parts of the right hemisphere to intonation — the emotional content of a sound,” reports The New York Times. “And, perhaps most interesting to dog owners, only a word of praise said in a positive tone really made the reward system of a dog’s brain light up.”
To find out how dogs process human speech, researchers trained a group of 13 extraordinarily patient pooches (a mix of border collies, golden retrievers, Chinese cresteds, and German shepherds) to lay motionless in an MRI machine. The scanner logged their reactions to a recording of a trainer saying positive phrases (like “good boy”) in a positive tone of voice and a neutral tone, as well as neutral words (like “as if”) in both praising and neutral tones.
When the scientists analysed the brain scans, they found that – regardless of the intonation used – the dogs processed the meaningful words in the left hemisphere of the brain, just like humans do. The neutral words did not garner the same response, showing that dogs have some understanding of their meaning (or lack thereof).
The pups also processed intonation in the right hemisphere of their brains, again like humans. And when they heard words of praise said in a praising tone, another important part of their brain lit up: the reward area. The study shows that the canine brain integrates meaning and tone, using the two types of information to enhance each other, just as we do.
“Humans seem to be the only species which uses words and intonation for communicating emotions, feelings, inner states,” researcher Attila Andics told NPR. “To find that dogs have a very similar neural mechanism to tell apart meaningful words from meaningless sound sequences is, I think, really amazing.”
For more on the study from the authors themselves, watch the video below.