Researchers find that 6-month-olds are more attuned to the sound than adults

By Amy Jamieson
July 22, 2009 11:46 AM

Trying to figure out what your dog is barking about? Maybe you should ask an infant to translate. A new study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University says that 6-month-olds can understand the meaning of a dog bark.

In the experiment, which was led by BYU psychology professor Ross Flom, the babies were presented with two pictures, one of a dog in friendly “smiling” stance, the other a more aggressive snarl. Then, the researchers played two audio clips, one that sounded like a friendly dog, the other an aggressive dog bark. They found that the 6-month-olds spent the majority of their time staring at the correct picture that corresponded with the appropriate sound.

“It shows that kids have a broad-based ability to discriminate emotion or affect very early in development,” Flom tells PEOPLE Pets. “What young infants do when they hear an auditory cue, like a bark, they will look proportionately longer to the face that goes with what they’re hearing. So when they hear the aggressive bark, they look longer to the aggressive face. When they hear the non-aggressive bark they look longer to the non-aggressive face.”

Flom, who says they chose dogs for the study because of their high ability to communicate, found that the older the infant (they tested 32 at ages 6 months, 12 months, 18 months and 24 months) the less likely they’d match the dog bark with the correct picture. All the babies used in the study had a dog living in their home.

Turns out the 6-month-olds were more attuned to the dog barks than the adults they tested. “The adults tended to treat all barks as aggressive and they kind of wanted to compare bark A with bark B. The 6-month-olds didn’t have that problem,” says Flom, who – along with BYU students Dan Hyde and Heather Whipple Stephenson –reported the findings in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Sounds like understanding dogs may be a battle adult dog-owners may never win!