Why your dog is even smarter than you thought

Henrietta Brewer
September 1, 2016

"Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it".

According to the New York Times, your dog still might respond happily if you say something mean in a happy voice, but that might be because she's factoring in your body language and facial expressions, too. Further, the study showed that dogs, like humans, use the left and right sides of their brain to interpret speech; the left hemisphere processes meaningful words, while the right side differentiates real and fake praise.

Attila Andics, neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, said that humans' furry friends process both what they are told and how they are told, in a way remarkably similar to how our brains do.

The dogs in the study - six border collies, five golden retrievers, one German shepherd and one Chinese crested - were all volunteers, trained to lie still in a functional MRI or fMRI scanner. In the new study, the dogs processed words and intonation in different parts of the brain and combined the two to get meaning.

The scans showed that the dog's reward center was activated only when the trainers used praise words in a praising intonation.

However, during the scans, dogs seemed to be more responsive when they were being praised in an encouraging tone. Though they may understand words of praise said in any manner, it only makes dogs happy to hear us praise them when we do it with proper feeling. The human brain not only separately analyses what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning. The data gathered showed that intonation has no effect on how dogs processed the vocabulary and indicated that the dogs recognized distinct words. But there's more to this research than initially meets the eye. The dogs heard words of praise familiar to the dogs, such as "well done", and neutral words like "if" and "yet".

The findings, researchers say, mean the ability to process language may have evolved much earlier than thought.

In an upcoming issue of Science, researchers will argue that dogs and humans have similar neural networks that can be used to understand speech. The researchers say it's possible that domestication and artificial selection endowed dogs with this capacity, but admit it's unlikely.

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