Your dog may speak in barks and growls, but they also may understand human language, according to a new report.
Researchers from Emory University recently conducted a study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, to explore how pups understand human words.
“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” coauthor Ashley Prichard said in a statement. “We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports.”
For the assessment, the team evaluated 12 dogs of varying breeds, who were trained by their owners to retrieve two different objects − one with a soft texture like a stuffed animal and one with a rougher texture like rubber. The canines were successfully trained when they could distinguish between the two objects by consistently fetching the one requested by the owner when presented with both.
After the training, the scientists then examined the pooches by administering fMRI scans. During the procedure, the doggy’s owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine, calling out the name of the toys at set intervals and then holding up the corresponding toys. They also said gibberish words to their dogs and showed them something they hadn’t seen before as a control.
After analyzing the results, the researchers found that regions of the dogs’ brains responsible for auditory processing were more activated when hearing gibberish words. They believe their findings mean dogs can tell the difference between human words they’ve previously heard and words they haven’t.
“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” Prichard said. “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 researchers said the dogs’ brains are more activated by the novel terms, “because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so,” the team wrote.
The researchers did note their findings do not mean spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. They acknowledged previous studies that show the effectiveness of visual and scent clues.
“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard concluded. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”
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