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When It Comes to Dogs, It’s Not Just What You Say But How You Say It

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A woman laying on the floor with a husky dog, demonstrating how to say "dogs" nonverbally.

For dogs, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it, according to recent findings.

Scientists in Hungary scanned the brains of dogs as their trainers said words, like “good boy,” “super” and “well done,” as well as neutral words, like “however” and “nevertheless.” The dogs heard both of these categories – praise and neutral – in neutral and positive tones.

Related: New Research Sheds Light on the Evolution of Dogs

The researchers discovered the dogs’ brains react similar to ours. The left side responded to the meaning of the word, while the right side looked at the tone, or how the word sounds emotionally. Another interesting finding is the rewards system in the dog’s brain only lit up when the praise words in a positive tone were said – meaning the neutral words in a positive tone didn’t register, neither did the meaningful words in a neutral tone. So, they really do know what we say.

“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it,” said lead researcher Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. “Praise can work as a reward only if both word meaning and intonation match.”

Related: Are We Teaching Our Dogs to Be Lazy?

Thirteen family dogs participated in the study, with four breeds represented: border collies, golden retrievers, Chinese crested dogs and German shepherds. The dogs had to lie very still in the MRI machine, while they listened to their trainer’s voice.

Andics believes there are definitely other animals out there that respond to tone and meaning but they aren’t as interested in our voices, making them hard to test.

By Andrea Huspeni

Andrea Huspeni is the founder and CEO of This Dog's Life. Her mission it to help dogs live a happier, healthier and longer life. When she isn't working, she spends time with her two dogs, Lola and Milo. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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