Everybody talks to their dog, right? From “who’s a good boy?” to “how was your day, dear?”, but do we really think they understand us? It turns out they do to an extent, but perhaps not in the way we think.
Researchers from Emory University used fMRI brain imaging to understand how our favorite floofs process the words they are taught to associate with certain things. For example, does “walkies” mean they know they will be going for a nice run around outdoors somewhere or do they just associate the word with excitement, that something is about to happen?
"Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn't much scientific evidence to support that," said Ashley Prichard, first author of the study, in a statement. "We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves – not just owner reports."
(And, of course, studying dogs for science is the dream.)
To do so, they looked at the brain mechanism that dogs use to differentiate between words, with the hope of also finding out what a word actually means to a dog.
"We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands," added Gregory Berns, senior author of the study, and founder of the Dog Project. "Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners."
In this study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12 very good boys and girls of different breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two objects – one with a soft texture, like a stuffed teddy, the other with a different texture, like rubber, to help differentiate – based on the words they were taught to associate with each toy. They were considered trained and study-ready when they could discriminate between the two objects by consistently fetching the correct one requested by their owners.
The dogs then lay in the MRI scanners with their owners in front of them, saying the name of their toy at set intervals, and showing the dog the corresponding object. As a control, they also said words that were gibberish while holding up random objects.
Surprisingly, the brain scans revealed the dogs’ brains showed more activity in the auditory regions when hearing the gibberish words compared to the trained words they knew, which is the opposite of research on humans, according to Prichard. "People typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words."
The researchers suspect this is because the dogs sense their owner wants them to understand what they are saying and so they’re working overtime to try. "Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food," Berns added.
There were some discrepancies in the parts of the brain that showed more activity when hearing new words in the dogs, which the researchers consider could be a limitation of the study, possibly due to the different breeds’ varying sized brains and cognitive abilities.
"Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words," Berns said, "but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response."
So, it turns out, dogs do have a rudimentary understanding of some of the words we say to them, even if it is just the association they have with that word, rather than the word itself.