Brain scan study reveals how dogs respond to language © Gregory Berns/Emory University

Brain scan study reveals how dogs respond to language

Brain scans show man’s best friend really does try to understand what you’re saying.

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.

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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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