Many dog owners believe that their four-legged friends have the ability to understand what they are saying, and new evidence suggests that this may indeed be the case, to an extent at least. A team of researchers from Hungary have discovered that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does.
Findings like this could have the power to change the ways in which people interact with their dogs.
Scientists from the Comparative Ethology Research Group at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences placed dogs in an MRI scanner to test how they reacted to voices. They played the dogs 200 different sounds, ranging from environmental noises like car sounds and whistles, to human sounds (but not words) and dog vocalisations. For comparison, they also looked at the brains of 22 human volunteers.
They found that in both the dogs and the humans, the temporal pole in the most anterior part of the temporal lobe was activated when human voices were played.
The team, who published their work in the journal Current Biology, also found that emotionally charged sounds like laughter and crying promoted similar responses. In addition, emotionally charged dog vocalisations like whimpers and angry barks caused similar reactions in all volunteers.
However, it is important to note that while dogs did respond to human voices, their reactions were much stronger when it came to canine sounds.
A very similar mechanism
Lead author of the study Attila Andics said: “We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information.” Meanwhile, talking about the research techniques, the expert added: “We used positive reinforcement strategies – lots of praise. There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room, then these dogs were able to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it.”
Commenting on the findings, Professor Sophie Scott from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London said: “Finding something like this in a primate brain isn’t too surprising – but it is quite something to demonstrate it in dogs. Dogs are a very interesting animal to look at – we have selected for a lot of traits in dogs that have made them very amenable to humans. Some studies have shown they understand a lot of words and they understand intentionality – pointing.”
However, she went on to say that it would be interesting to see if the creatures responded to words rather than just sounds. She added: “When we cry and laugh, they are much more like animal calls and this might be causing this response.”
According to Professor Scott, a further step would be to look at whether dogs have sensitivity to words in the languages that their owners speak. She may be pleased to note then that Dr Andics has revealed this will be the focus of his next study.
Anna Longdin writes regularly about pets. So that she’s always up to date on the latest news and developments in the world of animal care, she visits sites including Hill’s Pet Nutrition.