How Dogs Understand What We Say : Shots - Health News Dogs pay close attention to the emotion in our voices, but what about the meaning of words? A clever experiment with 250 canines shows that dogs understand more of our speech than previously thought.

How Dogs Understand What We Say

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Dogs are better known for their loyalty and warmth than their brains. But a new study suggests they may be smarter than we think. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff talked with some scientists about the findings as well as a representative from the canine community.

MANGO: (Barking).

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: That's Mango. She's a German Shepherd. She lives in San Francisco, and she's my dog. Mango loves to fetch and chase squirrels. And like many dogs, she recognizes about a dozen commands. Her favorite?

DOUCLEFF: Mango, do you want to go to the park?

MANGO: (Barking).

DOUCLEFF: No matter how I say this one command... (Speaking angrily) Mango, do you want to go to the park? (In a sing-song voice) Mango, do you want to go to the park? She perks up her ears, tilts her head and...

MANGO: (Barking).

DOUCLEFF: OK, scientists know that dogs pay attention to the emotion in our voices - how the pitch goes up and down, whether the tone is friendly or mean. But I swear, with this one command, Mango understands the words. And luckily, somebody's been looking into this. There's a study out this week in Current Biology that tries to figure out if dogs really recognize words. Or are they just responding to the emotions in our voices? For instance, would Mango respond if even Google said her favorite command?


GOOGLE VOICE: Mango, do you want to go to the park?

DOUCLEFF: Vicky Ratcliffe is a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of Sussex in England. She worked on the news study, and she tells me about the experiment they set up.

VICKY RATCLIFFE: The way it works is we have two speakers which are placed either side of the dog, to their left and their right.

DOUCLEFF: Then, Ratcliffe played the command to come out both speakers at the same time. At first, the command sounded normal. It had meaningful words and emotional cues in it.


RATCLIFFE: Come on, then.

DOUCLEFF: Then, Ratcliffe changed it up. She played a command with no emotion, but meaningful words.


ELECTRONIC VOICE: Come on, then.

DOUCLEFF: Then a command with only emotion, no words.


DOUCLEFF: Then there was one that sounded like a robot.


DOUCLEFF: For each command, Ratcliffe recorded which way the dogs turned their heads, toward the left speaker or toward the right speaker. Even though both speakers were playing the same sounds, a clear pattern emerged.

RATCLIFFE: So when the dogs heard meaningful verbal information, then most of them turned to their right.

DOUCLEFF: But when the dogs heard commands with just emotional cues, most dogs turned to the left. This suggests that dogs process emotional cues on one side of the brain and the meaning of words on the other side. This is similar to how we humans process speech. Attila Andics is a neurobiologist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and a top expert on dog brains. He says the results are strong and clear.

ATTILA ANDICS: In a way, this study tells me that dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences.

DOUCLEFF: That means when Mango hears, go to the park, it's not just the emotional cues that matter to her. She's paying attention to the words I use, too. Andics says a few previous studies have hinted at this, but this new study nailed it. So back to my home version of this experiment, how will Mango respond to Google saying her favorite command?


GOOGLE VOICE: Mango, do you want to go to the park?

DOUCLEFF: She's just staring at me. Nothing's happening. She's not responding at all. About 10 percent of the dogs in the study didn't respond either. So maybe Mango's not as smart as I thought. Or maybe she just knows that that computer is never going to take her to the park.

MANGO: (Barking).

DOUCLEFF: Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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