Science confirms what dog owners have always thought: your dog understands you when you speak to him. A team of scientists has studied for the first time how the brain of dogs interprets human speech. The results show that the man’s best friend is worried about what we say and how we say it, especially when we congratulate them.

To understand speech, the human brain divides the tasks: the left hemisphere is responsible for the meaning of words and the right allows interpreting the intonation. This way, we analyze separately what we say about how we say it in order to arrive at a joint meaning. But this ability is not unique in the human being.

A study, published in Science, suggests that dogs’ brains work in the same way to distinguish words and intonation. “They use brain mechanisms very similar to humans,” says Attila Andics, senior author of the work and scientist in the Department of Ethology and the Comparative Ethology Research Group MTA-ELTE of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (Hungary).

In this way, dogs, like people, use the left hemisphere to understand the vocabulary of words and a region of the right hemisphere for intonation. For scientists, if human speech is very present in the dog’s environment, representations of the meaning of words may arise in his brain, even in the case of non-primate mammals such as dogs that are not able to speak.

“Dogs use brain mechanisms very similar to humans”

ATTILA ANDICS Main author of the work and researcher of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (Hungary)
“Dogs can learn the words that are relevant to them and often used by their owners to address them. The words to congratulate them are an example, “emphasizes Sinc Anna Gábor, one of the authors of the work and researcher at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.

This is the first study that analyzes the neuronal background of this process in dogs, although for years scientists from different parts of the world have carried out various experiments to demonstrate the ability of dogs to recognize the different components of speech.

“Dogs can learn the words that are relevant to them and often used by their owners to address them”

“But until now we did not know much about the brain mechanisms of dogs and that these were similar to those of humans to understand words. It remains to be documented how these animals separate and integrate lexical and intonation information in spoken words, “says Gábor.

Better understanding for the compliments

According to the researchers, the study is the first step in understanding how dogs interpret human speech. For this, they trained 13 dogs that remained immobile to perform a brain magnetic resonance. The scientists were able to measure the brain activity of each dog by listening to the words of their coach (praise or no meaning to them, combining praise or neutral intonations).

By looking for regions of the brain that differentiated words with meaning and those that did not, and congratulations or neutral intonations, scientists realized that dogs prefer to use their left hemisphere to process words and that these brain activations were independent of intonation, which is activated in the right hemisphere.

The study also indicates that pets are the compliments that activate the reward system of the dog – the brain region that responds to all kinds of pleasurable stimuli such as food, sex, or caresses – only when words and intonation of praise agree

“The dogs combine both for a correct interpretation of speech and what those words really mean. Once again, the process is very similar to that of humans, “says Andics.

About the origin human speech

For scientists, this work not only improves communication and cooperation between dogs and humans, but also sheds light on the appearance of words during the evolution of language. “What actually makes words unique in humans is not our special neuronal ability, but our ingenuity to invent and use them,” says the lead author.

The Hungarian team suggests that the neural mechanisms to understand words evolved much earlier than previously thought, and reveals that they are not unique to the human brain. Possibly during domestication, selective forces supported the appearance of the brain structure that underlies this capacity in dogs, but given the rapid evolution of hemispheric asymmetries related to speech, it is actually unlikely. “Human beings are only unique in their ability to invent words,” the authors conclude.


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