Dogs Can Separate Vocabulary from Intonation

August 31, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: Eniko Kubinyi

Brain scans show dogs process language the same way as humans.

Humans talk to their dogs on a regular basis, but no one knows exactly what happens when those words reach the canine brain.

A new study published in Science takes a closer look at how dogs’ brains respond to human language, finding that they process human speech “in a way which is amazingly similar to how human brains do," study lead author Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, tells NPR.

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Andics and his colleagues scanned the brains of 13 dogs from four breeds — border collies, golden retrievers, Chinese crested dogs, and German shepherds — who were trained to lie still in the scanner while they listened to recordings of their trainer’s voice. The dogs heard words of praise familiar to the dogs, such as “well done,” and neutral words like “if” and “yet.” Each word was repeated in a neutral tone and a praising tone.

The brain scans revealed that the dogs were able to separate the meaning of the words from their intonation, with meaning being processed in the left hemisphere of the brain and intonation registering in the right hemisphere — just like humans.

It was only when both the word and the tone were positive that the dogs showed increased activity in the reward centers of the brain, which normally respond to happy stimuli like being pet and getting a treat.

“Dogs are very smart,” Andics tells Scientific American. “Praising them with the correct intonation can work just as well as other rewards like food or a pat on the back.”

The findings run counter to the commonly held belief that the shift to left hemisphere processing of language was a hallmark of human evolution.

"It seems the story is really that there is a general mammalian bias to process words or meaning in communication in the left hemisphere and it became exaggerated in humans," says Duke University cognitive neuroscientist Brian Hare, who was not involved in the study, to NPR. "It's not something completely new to our species."

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