Dogs Understand Human Vocalisations

Dog in scanner

A paper published confirms that dogs have and use the same part of the brain humans do to understand speech, this is the first proof that dogs do understand what we are on about.

This comes as no surprise to any dog owner, we all know they usually know what we are on about when we tell them to do something, with the condition that it something they have learned to understand such as a the word “walk” or our general tone when talking to them.

I think of it as the same as learning a new language, you know someone is talking to you and you can understand their insinuations from tone or gestures but you don’t know the words, so therefore don’t know the true meaning of what they are talking about. This new evidence can now suggest this is the same for dogs, they understand words, phrases and tones but don’t fully speak our language, we understand them in a similar way as well. We learn what a certain bark means or their messages encoded in body language.

This sort of brain usage has only been seen in Humans and our Primate relatives, which can understand sign language and hold conversation with their handlers in some extreme cases. Is it that if we could create a common language with dogs, could we also hold conversation with them and understand what they mean?

Since dogs are a product of human fancy and intervention, it is possible that the front brain developed like our own to accommodate the interaction with humans, this could be from selective breeding where those dogs that worked best with people were bred from, those which could not understand humans were culled or non bred from. This eventually could lead the evolution of the brain, that was been researched for this study.

The study taught dogs to lie in an MRI scanner to allow a comparison between dogs and humans to noises, these ranged from whistles and other environmental sounds as well as human sounds (no words) and dog vocalisations.

It was found that the temporal pole, the furthest forward (anterior) part of the temporal lobe which activated when both humans and dogs herd human voices.

Dogs had a stronger reaction to the vocalisations of other dogs, but seemed to less able to distinguish between environmental sounds.

Obviously this study is not the greatest research of all time, but it is a step in understanding the brain processes of humans and canines alike. It also confirms points that every dog owner knows, science once again sets out to prove what is known, it is research that will provide interesting results that will be striking in the zoology world for some time but sometimes it can be stating the obvious and become research for researches sake.

Now we have proved that dogs can understand tone of voice and sounds, which is fairly obvious that they do like most mammals we interact with. The next step as suggested by the research would be to see if dogs understand words,  something that would certainly put them on par with primates.

When the they suggest understand words, this means more than just the sound but the meaning of the word, such as colours, shape, size or connotations. This would be much like Alex the parrot (Search for it), who could understand and compare colours and shapes, as well as hold simple conversations.

Primates such as Koko the Gorilla who understood sign language, and could communicate her wants and thoughts to the keeper, as well as holding conversations, she could even assign blame, blaming her kitten for when she ripped the sink from the wall. Could dogs be proved to understand or do such acts?

Since dogs learn by association we know they can understand what a sound means such as “sit” or “ball”, to them they are not words just sounds that mean do or get a certain thing, it does not mean it understands you when you tell it it must pee outside instead of on the floor, it learns by association that it gets praise for going outside and get negative consequences for going inside or it is ignored, either way it is beneficial for to go outside then it becomes a habit, they want to defecate outside as they always do.

Some dogs know maybe 20 words, but the exceptional few can know up to 1000, Chaser is a Border Collie who knows the name of over 1000 objects and can generalise that stick or car can be several things, and that saying a new word and adding a new object, she then inferred it was that new thing.

Border Collies are known to be an intelligent breed, but it would be interesting to see if other breeds are just as capable of learning as many words, as well as other things that would put them with the same comparable intelligence as humans.

BBC Information and Images:

Alex the Parrot Image:

Koko the Gorilla Image:

Chaser the Dog:

Unable to access full journal due to subscription needed to Science Direct

Look up all the other suggestions, they are well worth a read.



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