September 6, 2016 – Dogs have the ability to distinguish words and the tone of human speech using the same parts of the brain humans use for understanding speech, a new study from the Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary, has found.

Attilia Andic of the Department of Ethology and MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group at Eötvös Loránd University, who led the research, said it means vocabulary learning “does not appear to be a uniquely human capacity that follows from the emergence of language, but rather a more ancient function that can be exploited to link arbitrary sound sequences to meanings”.

Dr Andic told Pet News Today that 13 dogs of various breeds, sexes and ages, were taught to lie still for seven minutes in an fMRI (a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine which works by measuring blood oxygenation and blood flow that occur in response to neural activity to produce images that show which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process). the dogs could not move more than 3mm in any direction during the process for it to work. Dr Andic said it was important to the research team the dogs were “happy volunteers” who enjoyed what they were doing and “would want to take part and feel well about it”. Interestingly, some highly-trained dogs could not take part because they were unused to being told do do nothing for such a time period and needed more mental stimulation.

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A female trainer who had worked with the dogs had been recorded saying three phrases comprising of words with positive meanings with praising intonation: “good boy”, “well done” and “clever” which were replayed to the dog lying in the fMRI. The recordings were then played to each canine participant while they were in the fMRI, then the positive-meaning phrases were repeated using a neutral intonation. The trainer had also recorded meaningless phrases in a neutral tone and a positive tone. These were comprised of meaningless conjunctive words such as “as if” that the dog would be familiar with hearing, but which had no specific meaning or worth to them.

The resulted revealed that, regardless of intonation, dogs process vocabulary, recognising each word as distinct, and further, that they do so in a way similar to humans, using the left hemisphere of the brain. Also like humans, the researchers found that dogs process intonation separately from vocabulary, in auditory regions in the right hemisphere of the brain. Lastly, and also like humans, the team found that the dogs relied on both word meaning and intonation when processing the reward value of what they heard. But the reward centre was only activated when both word meaning and tone matched.

So dogs understand both words and the way they are said. Does this mean dogs are more intelligent than humans? After all, we might understand if a dog’s bark means if it happy, scared or angry, but we don’t understand what dogs’ multiple nuanced vocalisations to other dogs mean, whereas it appears dogs understand phrases and tones we used not only with them but with other people.

“Words are something we have and dogs don’t,” Dr Andics said, but he added the research result opened up “a whole new world in communications” between humans and dogs. It also indicated how adept at dogs were to adapting to the human environment – the study noted it was possible that selective forces during domestication could have supported the emergence of the brain structure underlying this capability in dogs. He said humans had not really had to adapt to much in terms of our environment and other species in our recent evolution.

“Whether there is an understanding in the true human sense is speculation,” Dr Andics said adding the clear result was that in the dog brain the reward response combined both word/phrase meaning and praise intonation. But he added that basic acoustic rules and patterns are common across species and imply similar emotions across species, for example a human laughing – hah-hah-hah-hah-hah – is comprised of short sounds and a happy dogs barks are similarly short.

These findings also have important conclusions about humans. “Our research sheds new light on the emergence of words during language evolution. What makes words uniquely human is not a special neural capacity, but our invention of using them,” Dr Andics explained.

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Dr Andics said researcher team wanted to thank the dogs and their owners who were part of this extraordinary study: Apacs and Borbála Ferenczy, Barney and Patricia Vadász, Bran and             Balázs Pelle,  Grog and Szilvia  Zana, Guru and Csaba Szántay, Kefir and Tímea Posta, Manka and Katalin Apáthy, Málna, Maverick and Nia and Dóra Kettinger, Maya and Tamara Novák,        Sander and Lili Sipos, and, Teo and Dóra Szabó.

You can view a video abstract of the study here.

The Family Dog Project was founded in 1994 to study the behavioural and cognitive aspects of the dog-human relationship. It is one of the largest dog research groups in the world, with over 100 published papers to date in peer-reviewed journals. Currently, members of the Family Dog Project belong to three institutions: Eötvös Loránd University, Department of Ethology; MTA TTK Comparative Behavioural Research Group, MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group. The head of the group is Prof. Ádám Miklósi. His latest book,  “Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition” is published by Oxford University Press.

If you want to support the Family Dog Project you can make a donation to it here or if you would like to take part in one of the Family Dog Project’s studies – some of which can be done online – you can take part here.

‘Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs’, by Andics Attila, Gábor Anna, Gácsi Márta, Faragó Tamás, Szabó Dóra & Miklósi Ádám  was published in the journal Science on 2 September 2016.
Photos by Borbála Ferenczy.
Polly Stewart
I'm the founder of MyPawsomePet.com.

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