Study finds dogs recognize human words regardless of intonation

We have all seen the folks who talk to their dogs like they are humans, not that anything is wrong with that. Each time I see someone talking to their dog, I always wonder if the dog actually understands what they are saying. A new study published in the September 2 issue of Science shows that dogs do in fact understand some human words and understand those words regardless of intonation used. The data from the study could provide important insight into how neural networks understand speech.

"We humans also love talking to dogs all the time. We praise them, call them," said Attila Andics of Eötvös Loránd University, lead author of the study. "But quite little is known about what dogs get out of all of this, of how dogs interpret our words. Do they process the tone of our words only or do they process the words as well?"

The scientists in the study used MRI to measure brain activity in the dogs participating in the study. The study appears to have required well-trained dogs that were able to sit inside the MRI machine, despite the noise, to participate. The MRI machine captured brain activity in the dogs as the dogs listened to recordings of their trainer speaking different word combinations.

Recordings had the trainer saying words like "super" or "however" in high-pitched and cheery voices or in neutral tones. The data gathered showed that intonation has no effect on how dogs processed the vocabulary and indicated that the dogs recognized distinct words. The data also shows that dogs process vocabulary in a manner similar to how humans process using the left hemisphere of the brain. The researchers also found that dogs, like humans, process intonation separately from the vocabulary, in the right hemisphere of the brain.

"This shows ... that dogs not only separate what we say from how we say it, but also that they can combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant," Andics said.