Scientists in Hungary say that dogs can understand the meaning of the words we use and the intonation used when we say them.

According to a new study dogs are capable of understanding words to the extent that intonation is of secondary importance. For example if you use a happy voice to tell your dog he needs a trip to the vet, you’re unlikely to fool him into being happy about it. The full results of the study were published by Science.

Brain Scan Explains That Dogs Understand Us
Photo by Aine D

Dogs’ brains process language the same way as human brains

Previous studies have shown that dogs are more responsive to human commands than wolves, and they can match hundreds of objects to different words. They can also be directed by our speech.

However this new study proposes a closer link between dogs and humans than ever before. According to the results, dogs process language using the same brain regions as humans.

Study leader Attila Andics and his team from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest used 13 dogs over the course of the study, the majority of which were border collies and golden retrievers. They were trained to sit still in an MRI scanner for 7 minutes, allowing scientists to measure the activity of their brains.

“We trained dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner awake, and unrestrained for several minutes. We let them listen to their trainer’s speech and at the same time we measured their brain activities,” said Andics.

Scientists improve knowledge of canine brain activity

During the study a trainer spoke selected “praise” words to the dogs, including “clever,” “well done” and “that’s it.” They were then told supposedly neutral words like “yet” and “if.” Each word was spoken in a happy tone, and then a neutral tone.

The dogs’ brain activity was visualized in images which allowed researchers to see that the animals processed the words they knew, no matter the intonation they were spoken in. The language was processed in the left hemisphere, the same as in humans.

However the tone of the words was processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, the same as in humans. The brain images showed that the “rewards center” of the dogs’ brain was stimulated by positive words said in a positive 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,” Andics 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.”

No fooling Fido

According to the study it’s not likely that humans could have selected dogs for this function during their domestication. It is thought that it is far more ancient than domestication, which occurred around 15,000 years ago.

Not only does this tell us more about dogs, but it reveals that humans are not as unique as we thought when it comes to how our brain deals with language. According to Andics, words are uniquely human because we came up with them.

Next time you try to fool your pet by meaning mean in a nice voice, remember this study. It’s likely that your furry friend is completely aware of what you’re doing, and might well be wondering why the human is being so condescending.