We all talk to our dogs, but do they understand our words? While many dog parents believe dogs can understand us, there are those who call us crazy. Scientists at Emory University decided to find out.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, founder of The Dog Project and senior author of the study, has been exploring the evolutionary relationship between human and dog since 2012. He began by training dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and produced the first scans in the world of a dog’s brain in relation to language, hand signals and the promise of treats.
The most recent study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, found that dogs do have a basic understanding of words they’ve been taught. (Dog people, you can now tell those doubters to take a hike!)
‘What’s in a word?’
How do dogs understand a word? What comprises a word for a dog?
In other words, when we say to a dog, “Hey bud! There’s a squirrel,” does the dog see an image in their brain of a little furry rodent with a bushy tail? How do dogs think when we say that word?
The Emory News Center reports that first author of the study, Ashley Prichard, a PhD candidate at Emory University, wanted to get it from the horse’s — er, dog’s mouth. “Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” she says.
The team enlisted 12 dogs of different breeds who were trained by their owners over a period of months to fetch two different toys of different textures, such as a stuffed animal and a rubber ball, by using treats as a reward. The training was considered complete when the dog could consistently retrieve the specifically requested toy, indicating that they understood what the words for each toy referred to.
The study focused on the part of the dog brain that can differentiate between words as well as examining what a word is to a dog. It suggests that dogs have a “rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.”
For the experiment, the trained pooch would lay in the MRI machine while the owner stood in front of the dog at the machine’s opening and held up the toy while saying its name. For the “control” variable of the experiment, the owner would say a made-up word that means nothing while holding up a different kind of object, like a hairbrush or a doll.
Unexpectedly, the dogs’ brains showed greater activity at the meaningless word than at words that they recognized. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” Prichard says. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”
Researchers suggest that the increased brain activity might relate to dogs’ desire to understand what we’re saying. They tend to want to please us, so trying to decipher what this new word meant may be a way to try and make their dog parents happy. Or, Berns adds, maybe they just want a treat.
But the fact that a dog can tell the difference between “ball” and “bear” doesn’t mean that talking to our dogs is the best method of communication. “When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard explains to Emory University. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”
And in terms of the increased brain activity responding to nonsense words, we now know if we want to grab our dog’s attention quickly, it’s more effective to say something like “bodmickadoo” in a commanding voice, because our dogs want to please us. And that makes them amazing.