A New Study Delves Into How Dogs Interpret What We Say To Them

We’ve all done it, talking to our pets like they are humans and then wondering how much of our talk they actually understand. Now, a new study has revealed the way in which dogs listen to their owners and how they interpret what we say to them.

At the commencement of the study, researchers were expecting to find “that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t.”

As to be expected, dogs do know verbal commands. In addition, dogs also likely try to interpret words we say to them that they are not used to hearing in an effort to understand us. This is possibly due to the fact that dogs are always trying to please their owners.

According to Business Insider, 12 dogs participated in the study. They were given fMRI scans “so neurologists could see the dogs’ brain activity when they were told certain commands.”

During the scans, approximately one-half of the dogs showed increased activity in their parietotemporal cortex to discern what was being said, while the remaining dogs used their left temporal cortex, amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus, according to BI. Regardless, though, it is believed that in both instances, the dogs were trying hard to identify what was being said.

A new study delves into how dogs interpret what we say to them
Featured image credit: Gregory BernsEmory University

These scans revealed that dogs have greater neural activations when their owners speak “gibberish” words than they do for actual human-language toy commands. Business Insider uses “piggy” and “monkey” as examples here as these commands were used as trained cues for the dogs involved in the study. Along with these known human words, randomly generated gibberish words were also matched with items in order to see how the animals reacted to each scenario.

This reaction to gibberish words compared to known words is considered an opposite response to the way the human brain responds to words they don’t understand.

“The most exciting finding is probably that the greater neural activation to pseudowords [gibberish] over the trained words in dogs is different than what is common in human language studies,” study co-author Ashley Prichard explains.

“This study really highlights that dogs don’t process language as humans do, and that while we train dogs with verbal commands to perform actions, this doesn’t mean that they derive the same meaning from nouns the way humans do.”

So, what’s going on there?

According to the study, it is the animal’s need to please their owner that is making the dog work harder to identify words it doesn’t understand.

In addition to the difference in the way dogs interpret commands, it is believed that visual cues also help dogs understand what we say to them.

As Gizmodo points out, this new research is exciting as it ” focuses on whether dogs can understand human speech, rather than words combined with intonation and/or gestures.”

Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, a senior author of the study, released the following statement in regard to the findings.

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands. Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”