A study shows that dogs understand both the words and the tone in which we speak to them.
The Department of Ethology of the University of Budapest, in Hungary, published in 2016 a study in the journal “Science”, one of the most prestigious in scientific research, in which they show how dogs’ brains work when we talk to them.
1- How was the study conducted to prove that dogs understand human words ?
Hungarian scientists trained 13 dogs to get on an MRI machine and stay there for a long time.
When the dogs were able to stay still inside the machine, the scientists gave them messages of all kinds: some positive, some negative, some neutral… they not only studied the meaning of the sentences they gave the dogs, but also whether the intonation used by humans influences the reception of the message.
The MRI revealed the functioning of their brain, and thus they were able to conclude that language in dogs works quite similarly to humans: they use the left hemisphere to try to understand the meaning and the right hemisphere to know the intention, that is, to understand the intonation of the words. You know that the same message can vary depending on whether you say: “How beautiful you are!!!” with joy or “how beautiful you are” with tone or irony. Maybe you are calling her ugly, you know?
2- What can dogs understand and what can’t they understand ?
Dogs can learn the words that are relevant to them and that are often used by their owners to address them. Words to congratulate them are the best example, explains to Sinc Anna Gábor, one of the authors of the work.
If they learn these words very quickly and understand them whenever you repeat them, it is because the reward area of the brain comes into operation.
Just as we have learned that we like ice cream right away (because it triggers pleasure mechanisms in the brain), dogs tend to learn immediately the words that bring them pleasure, such as compliments and food.
Similarly, dogs strive to understand words that signal bad things to them, in order to be alert. So it is very likely that, even if you try to hide it, they will understand the word “veterinarian” perfectly well.
3- Is there anything that dogs can’t understand ?
A lot of things. Apparently, our brains are very similar, but the human brain is much more complex, that’s why it has been able to develop its own language. Another thing we have in common is that dogs also dream.
Dogs only learn basic information that is repeated many times and that is useful for their lives. In other words, if you sit down and read Harry Potter books to them, they won’t learn anything and they won’t enjoy the narrative or the exciting story of the wizard. At best, they will learn “Harry Potter” because it will be a word that gets repeated a lot, but they may think it means “boredom” or “when my human picks up a book and says things that I don’t know what they mean”.