Dogs' Brains React To Owners' Voices Like Babies To Mothers

Just listening to their owner's voice is rewarding for dedicated pooches. Image credit: Simona Pilolla / Shutterstock.com

Dogs’ ability to obey verbal commands is a famous talent, but new research reveals the significance of an owner’s voice goes well beyond “sit” and “stay” – dogs have a special attachment to their owner's voice which generates brain activity similar to that of a newborn listening to their mother.

The connection, described in a new paper published in the journal NeuroImage, means that dogs don’t only benefit from interactions with their owner, they get a reward from just listening to their voice too.

Human infants exhibit a reward-related brain response to their mother’s voice, and are attached to their parents in that they love them but also turn to them for reassurance in unfamiliar situations. The researchers on this new study wanted to find out if dogs had any brain mechanisms underpinning their love for their owner, and if this extended to the same kind of attachment seen in humans.

“To study the brain mechanisms behind dog-owner attachment is particularly exciting, because it can help to understand how similar this unique bond between individuals of different species can be to other well-known relationships between conspecifics (e.g. infant-mother attachment),” said Anna Gábor, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Some years ago we discovered that dog brains are sensitive to verbal praises, but it remained unexplored how the relationship with the speaker affects this sensitivity.”

The researchers employed the “Strange Situation Test”, which has historically been used to make behavioral observations of how children respond to the absence of their caregivers. They combined this with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe their brain activity while listening to praising and neutral speech from their owner, as well as a person who was familiar to them.

The results revealed that the reward center of a dog’s brain is more sensitive to the owner’s voice compared to when the familiar person was speaking. They also found that dogs who were more attached to their owners showed a greater neural response to their human’s voice, demonstrating that they’re capable of recognizing it when the owner isn’t visible and that it is rewarding to hear even when the dog isn’t being specifically praised. These new insights demonstrate that a dog’s relationship with its owner shares many similarities to that of an infant and its mother.

“The basic function of attachment is to keep the dependent individual (infant, dog) in the proximity of the caregiver,” said Márta Gácsi, last author of the study. “Our results point out that in dogs, just like in infants, not only positive interactions with the caregiver, but even listening to their neutral voice is rewarding.”

A recent study also found that the power of a parent’s voice can even act as pain relief for babies, as it was found that premature babies undergoing procedures exhibited fewer stress signals when they could hear their mother’s voice.

So, whether you’re carting around a real baby or a fur baby, get talking.

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