Do Dogs Know a Genuine Compliment When They Hear One?

A new study found that dogs have some understanding of what we say and how we say it. Not only that, but they can also combine some vocabulary and our intonation to get a correct understanding of what we mean when we talk to them. In this study, Dr. Attila Andics and several other colleagues were able to train dogs to lie in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine while the machine recorded the dogs’ brain activity. The experiment revealed some really interesting results!

Studying Dogs’ Ability to Understand Vocabulary and Intonation

Similarities between Dogs’ and Humans’ Brains

Similar to how a human’s brain works, a dog’s brain is divided into 2 hemispheres. Much like in humans, the left hemisphere of a dog’s brain reacts to meaning and vocabulary, while the right side reacts to intonation (in other words, how you say the word and the emotion behind it). The MRI machine was able to detect this in the dogs’ brains.

The Experiment 

During the experiment, common words of praise were said to the dogs when they were in the MRI. These common words of praise included words like “good boy” and “well done.” These words were first said in positive tones and then in neutral tones. Next, neutral words were spoken (such as the word “however”). These neutral words were also spoken in both positive and neutral tones.

The dog’s reward center in the brain would light up with the most activity when words of praise were said in a positive tone. However, if praise words were said in a neutral tone, the brain activity was significantly less. (Therefore, it appears dogs do know a genuine compliment when they hear one!) Also, it was interesting to see that neutral words (said in either positive or neutral tones) got the same level of brain activity in the reward center as the words of praise that were offered in neutral tones. In other words, “well done” said in a neutral tone got the same response as “however” in a positive or neutral tone.

What does this mean for doggie owners?

Dogs are paying attention to what you say and how you say it! The ability to process the meaning of words and the intonation behind them and then tie them together was once thought to be something uniquely human. It appears that this may not be a uniquely human trait! No wonder why dogs are man’s best friend!

NY Times Source

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