Understanding “Man’s Best Friend”

Sit. Fetch! Bad dog. Roll over. Treat time! Good boy.

We say so many things to our dogs, good and bad, and most of the time we get a response. Every dog owner knows what it’s like. Even then, despite the near unbreakable human-dog bond, many are left pondering, “How much does my dog really understand me?”

Dog owner and MVHS freshman Lucy Liang provided some insight from her own personal experience with her dog, Kiwi.

“If [Kiwi] did something bad and we yell at her, she’ll go under the sofa and not come out,” Liang said. “It’s because she knows she’s in trouble. And if she did something good, she’ll automatically go to the treat place waiting for a treat.”

Liang believes that Kiwi understands her, and over the years she has learned from tone of voice and the way [Liang’s family] speak to her, the essence of what they’re saying.

Experiments conducted recently by neuroscientist Attila Andics show that Liang is on the right track – a dog’s brain can in fact take more cues from human speech than initially thought.

The contrast in response to different vocals between a dog’s brain and a human’s brain. (Report Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI, Attila Andics)
The contrast in response to different vocals between a dog’s brain and a human’s brain. (Report Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI, Attila Andics)

 

Here’s how the experiment worked: researchers using fMRI machines measured dog’s brain activity as they were given commands. According to the Smithsonian, fMRI machines track how the blood flows to different areas of the brain and then scientists can tell which part of the brain is active and “lighting up”. In this study, their aim was to test to see specifically how the dogs would respond to how praising and meaningless words were said in different tones of voice.

“It’s as if you are calling your dog on the phone,” Andics said. “They don’t have all the context. This is only word meaning and intonation at play here.”

The study found that when praising words were said with praising intonation, the left hemisphere of their brain became active. However, when meaningless words were spoken with praising intonation, there was no change in brain activity. These findings show that dogs can in fact take communication cues directly from our speech.

Andics said he was very surprised to see that even without having all the information, they can actually use both cues. He said that even though dogs may not understand words in the same way us humans do, they are still able to extract familiar words in a statement.

Liang’s dog, Kiwi, is no exception. In fact, the new research additionally backs up Liang’s claim that Kiwi has learned and grown accustomed to commands, intonation and words people say to her.

“I think [dogs] are kind of like anthropologists in our homes, watching us, living with us and following our habits,” Alexandra Horowitz, professor at Barnard College said. “For example, dogs learn [they’re going to the vet] much better than we think. Dogs have been studying us for too long and won’t fall for the ‘Let’s go to the vet!’ tricks.”

This new research is promising for the better understanding of the relationship between canines and humans. As scientists continue to conduct experiments regarding the neuroscience of dogs, we will continually learn more.

MVHS students and dog-owners like Liang now have at least one thing in common – the bond of trust with their dog and also more importantly understanding with them which has been affirmed by science.

Although more research is needed to answer how much dogs understand, one question can be answered. Yes, our dogs do understand us. So the next time you’re patting your dog on the head, consider everything that is actually going on inside their brains.