Lead researched Lilla Magyari told CNN that dogs "may just not realize that all details, the speech sounds, are really important in human speech"

By Jen Juneau
December 10, 2020 01:35 PM

A new study has found that dogs probably don't actually understand exactly what their owners are saying to them all the time.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest shared in their findings, published Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science journal, that dogs don't grasp subtleties in speech the way humans do.

Led by Lilla Magyari — a postdoctoral researcher within the university's ethology department — the study involved researchers attaching electrodes to the awake canine participants' heads to analyze their reactions to certain words, using electroencephalography (EEG).

The dogs listened to a collection of words, including ones they already knew (e.g., "sit"), similar-sounding nonsense words with one differing speech sound (like "sut") and completely different nonsense words (e.g., "bep").

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Pug and French Bulldog Looking Into The Camera
Dogs on a walk
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Like humans, the dogs who participated in the experiment were shown to recognize big differences in words — but when it came to slight nuances, the findings presented a different story.

"It seems like they don't really pay attention to all of the speech sounds," Magyari told CNN. "They may just not realize that all details, the speech sounds, are really important in human speech. If you think of a normal dog: That dog is able to learn only a few instructions in its life."

In a video summarizing the study, FamilyDogProject noted the pattern was "more similar to the brain response of a 1-year-old than a 2-year-old child," since humans start learning subtleties in speech around age 2.

"We speculate that the similarity of dogs' [event-related potentials] for instruction words and phonetically similar nonsense words reflects attentional and processing biases, rather than perceptual constraints, similarly to the case of human infants," the study reads. "However, future research needs to confirm this assumption."

Labrador Dog Run
Dog running outside
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The new findings come four years after researchers at the same university concluded that dogs understand both the meanings of words and the intonation you use to say them. In a nutshell? While your dog really gets the emotions you are sharing, the bad news is that he isn't fooled when you tell him it's time for his bath in a happy voice.

While the study didn't show pups can decode every word you're saying, it did show they can pick up on distinct words that they hear often and process that information, regardless of the tone.

"It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match," Attila Andics, one of the study's researchers, said in a statement at the time. "So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant."

Andics also said that this study is further proof that the human brain is not as unique in its workings as humans like to think. The researcher believes that results similar to what was found in this study could also be found in cats, but that cats may deliver weaker results overall because they were domesticated thousands of years after dogs.