Their Masters' Voices: Dogs Understand Tone And Meaning Of Words : Shots - Health News When humans talk to dogs, the canine brains seem to separate the meaning of the words from the intonation used and to analyze each aspect independently.
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Their Masters' Voices: Dogs Understand Tone And Meaning Of Words

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Their Masters' Voices: Dogs Understand Tone And Meaning Of Words

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People talk to their dogs a lot, and the dogs listen. Exactly what dogs make of all that human chatter has long been a mystery. A new study suggests that dogs care about both what we say and how we say it. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: This study peeked inside the brains of dogs by teaching them to lie still inside a brain scanning machine. Attila Andics is a neuroscientist in Hungary at Eotvos Lorand University. He says a colleague trained 13 dogs from border collies to golden retrievers, and the dogs seemed eager to oblige.

ATTILA ANDICS: They are really happy to participate because they realize, wow, this is actually a very easy task. I am doing nothing. I just lie motionless and then they are happy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: While the dogs were in the machine they heard their trainer's voice. Sometimes the dogs heard words of praise in an approving tone of voice like good boy, clever, well done. Here's what their trainer sounded like as she praised them - in Hungarian, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TRAINER: (Speaking Hungarian).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Other times the dogs heard her say the same words, but this time in a flat tone of voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TRAINER: (Speaking Hungarian).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The dogs also heard other words that were meaningless for them in both an approving tone and a neutral one. Here's what the brain scans revealed - the reward pathway in the dogs' brains only lit up when they heard words of praise in an approving tone of voice.

ANDICS: So only when both what we said and how we said it matched the praise.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The meaning of words got processed in the brain's left hemisphere while intonation was analyzed separately in the right hemisphere. These results appear in the journal Science, and they really impressed Brian Hare. He's a neuroscientist at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences. He thinks this study says something important about our own species.

BRIAN HARE: For decades, there has been an idea that a big shift occurred during human evolution where we became more left hemispheric dominant in processing communication.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it was thought that this shift helped humans develop their unique language abilities.

HARE: And this really challenges that because dogs also have a left hemispheric bias for processing words with meaning. That's a surprise.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it suggests when it comes to language, dogs and humans are doing some amazingly similar tricks. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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