How Well Do Dogs Understand Us?

It has long been known that dogs can comprehend words by picking up on the emotional tones of our voices, but new research from the University of Sussex has gone a step further by trying to find out if and how dogs understand the words we say.

Previous studies have shown that dogs have hemispheric biases – information processed in either the left or right hemisphere of the brain – when processing vocalization from other dogs. The research, conducted by doctoral candidate Victoria Ratcliffe, set to test whether dogs would show similar biases in response human speech.

In the experiment, 250 pet dogs of various breeds were brought into the lab, and had speakers set up by either side of their head. From these speakers the researchers played various commands, observing which way the dogs turned their heads, and thus which side of the brain processed the information. If a dog turned its head left then they could conclude information had been mainly processed in the right hemisphere and vice versa. This, Ratcliffe explains, is because ‘The input in each ear is mainly transmitted to the opposite hemisphere of the brain’ and so ‘if one hemisphere is more specialized in processing certain information in the sound, then that information is perceived as coming from the opposite ear’.

In the trial, the voice commands the scientists played were often electronically altered so that no emotion was recognizable in the words. Other times the phrases would be mangled so the words could not be understood, and instead emphasized the emotional content.

The researchers found that  when they played the emotionless clips, around 80% of the dogs turned to the right, suggesting the left side of the brain processed the speech. However, when they played the commands with emotional cues, the dogs would turn to the left, suggesting right side processing.

The study, published in the journal Cellular Biology, therefore suggests that dogs brains break speech up into two parts; emotional content -which is processed in the right hemisphere, and the language meanings,  processed in the left. This is similar to how humans process speech, suggesting some similarity in language processing. ‘We can say at least that they seem to be getting both the verbal and emotional, because they have biases for both’ Ratcliffe concluded.

Although it is still unclear exactly what dogs understand, this research proves a step forward in showing how they understand us, with Ratcliffe following up by saying that the team would like to continue their research; by experimenting with different information being removed from commands.

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Daniel Di Francesco

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