Who’s a clever boy? Many dog owners who talk to their pooches are convinced that their words are being understood. It turns out they may be right.


A study at Emory University has found that dogs have a basic understanding of words, are able to distinguish words they have heard before from those they haven’t, and are eager to try to understand what is being said to them.

Twelve dogs were trained by their owners to retrieve two objects based on the objects’ names – one squishy soft toy and one chewy rubber toy. The dogs were then placed into an fMRI scanner and had their brain activity monitored while their owners said the names of each toy as they held them up. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as ‘bobbu’ and ‘bodmick’, then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.

They found that there was more activation in the auditory regions of the dogs’ brains when they reacted to the novel words, suggesting that they sensed that their owners wanted them to understand what they were saying, and were trying to do so.

“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” said researcher Ashley Prichard, a PhD candidate in Emory University’s department of psychology. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans – people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.