Science Confirms What Your Heart Knows: Dogs Understand What You Say to Them

Dogs use the same parts of the brain as humans to process words and intonations

Next time someone gives you flack for holding a conversation with your pet, tell them that science is on your side.

A new study from a group of Hungarian scientists found dogs understand both the meanings of words and the intonation you use to say them, reports The Washington Post.

The good news: your dog really gets the emotions you are sharing.

The bad news: your dog isn’t fooled when you tell him it’s time for his bath in a happy voice.

This understanding most likely comes from how dogs process language. This new study shows canines use the same part of their brains as humans do to process words, intonation and grammar.

To get this “Aha” moment, the researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest trained 13 dogs, many of whom were golden retrievers and border collies, to sit still for 7 minutes. After training was complete, each dog was given an MRI scan to measure their brain activity. None of the dogs were restrained for the procedure, all of the pups were allowed to get up and walk out of the scan if they wanted.

As the dogs sat patiently through their MRI, a familiar trainer read them both positive terms (clever, well done, that’s it) and neutral terms (yet, if) in both happy and neutral tones.

Regardless of the tone of the word, the dog processed the words themselves through the left hemisphere of the brain, while the tone of the words were processed using the right hemisphere of the dog’s brain. This is similar to the way humans process the same information.

The reward center of the brain, associated with positive stimuli such as food and petting, of participating pooches also reacted, lighting up when dogs heard a positive term in a positive voice.

While this study doesn’t show pups can decode every word you’re saying, it does show dogs 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 researchers, said in a statement. “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.

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