For all of you dog owners and lovers out there, this news shouldn’t be too surprising: a recent study on dogs’ brains has shown that they can understand words, not just intonation. Amazingly, researchers in Hungary were able to get 13 dogs to remain completely still (without being restrained) in an MRI machine while they examined the K9s’ brains in response to different stimuli. What they found has surprised some in the medical community.
They found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere and used the right hemisphere to process pitch — just like people.
What’s more, the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and pitch were positive. Meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.
In other words, dogs don’t just care what we say to them, but how we say it—just like humans do. The fact that dogs have been socialized with humans for millennia helped this particular study, whereas it is difficult to conduct similar research with other animals who may or may not have any interest in our language.
While dog owners may find the results unsurprising, from a scientific perspective, it’s a “shocker” that word meaning seems to be processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, said Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, who had no role in the research.
So the next time you aren’t sure whether Fido really understands you, you can take comfort in the fact that he’s absorbing at least some of the words you use. Just remember to match intonation with meaning, and the both of you will be all set!