This week, many media outlets have run stories on a recent Hungarian study that might show that dogs not only understand the words we say to them, they also understand the tone of voice. I haven’t yet read the full paper, but based on several articles, here’s the gist.
The 13 dogs, trained to lie still in an MRI machine (so already a select group of highly educated individuals …), were tested on four sets of cues: Praise words said in a “praising intonation,” described as a higher and more varying pitch than neutral speech; the same praise words in a neutral tone; neutral words in a praise tone; and neutral words in a neutral tone.
From interactions with dogs, most of us know that we can get dogs to respond to pretty much anything we say in an excited or happy tone. And we know that they respond to some words even if we barely whisper them. For instance, a whispered “c…o…o…o…o…k…i…e…e…e…” gets a reliable response even if the dog is 100 yards away, playing happily with her buddy. But this research study, like several other MRI studies by this team and an American team, looked at the response in specific areas of the dogs’ brains, not their actions.
Praise words, regardless of tone, caused reactions in the left hemisphere of the dogs’ brain; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing speech. Neutral tones, regardless of words, produced a reaction in the right hemisphere; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing generic acoustic information. And, when the praise words were spoken in the praising tone, the reward centers of the dogs’ brain lit up. This shows that the dogs were able to integrate the meaning of the words and the tone and deduce meaning from them.
This study seems to show that dog brains process speech similarly to the way human brains process speech, which is what this article on Smithsonian.com reports. Other media reports said that it also means that the dogs understand human language, like this one from NPR.
Some experts, like one of my all-time-favorite scientists, Dr. Gregory Berns, told Smithsonian.com that the paper has been “wildly overinterpreted,” partly due to its methods. He pointed out that responding to speech and tone is not the same as understanding it.
That may well be true. On the other hand, the NPR article warns of the perils of life with such smart dogs, particularly if — as I do — one leaves NPR on for them to listen to all day. My dogs are, indeed, both smarter and better-informed than I am, especially now that I work in an office and do not listen to NPR all day.
However, in all seriousness, I think the overinterpretation also may be oversimplification. Yes, our dogs learn that certain words, even sentences, have specific meanings. They learn our habits and routines, and through experience with us, they associate all kinds of things with words. In our household some examples are: Leashes and fun and ball-playing with, “Who wants to go to the park?”; bowls of yummy food with “How about some dinner?”; and a careful backing up so that just her large, furry front paws are over the threshold with “Out of the kitchen, Cali.” The front feet then scootch back almost imperceptibly in response to, “The entire dog, please.” So yes, my dogs understand and respond somewhat appropriately to several sentences; I suspect that each family’s dogs have a set of favorites.
But even armed with my years of knowledge of their intelligence, along with my new realization of their eruditeness (is there a dog-oriented radio station that I could leave on instead of NPR?), I do not think that they process and understand human language in the same way that a human adult does.
What I do think, based on a combination of experience and having read dozens of research papers on dog-human communication, is that they read us really, really well. They don’t respond only to the words we say or the words combined with the tone of voice. Humans don’t either; so much communication is based on body language and other cues, even between humans. But dogs really read our body language. They also read all the scents we are giving off, including pheromones that we are completely unaware of. They read our microexpressions and our posture and our facial expression and pay attention to what we are doing as we are talking to them. They can figure out our emotions from these cues. They know when we “mean it” and when they can push the boundaries just a bit further.
Cali is much quicker to listen to my “get out of the kitchen” phrases when I am fixing her dinner than when I am doing the dishes. She’s learned that I will stop fixing her dinner and wait for her to leave the kitchen. She doesn’t like that consequence. But she doesn’t much care if I get the dishes done and maybe even wants me to stop doing them so I can pay attention to her.
The point is, looking at dogs’ response to words and voice in isolation doesn’t make sense, because in their lives with us, that is not how they use language. Another important thing to remember about dogs, as opposed to any other nonhumans, is that so much of who they are has been shaped by the fact of their lives with us. The dog-human connection is unique; our communication with them is different from our communication with any other nonhumans (even cats).
The most important point, though, is that dogs pay close enough attention to us to learn the meanings of the different things we say to them. They care whether we’re happy with them — or just whether we’re happy. I’m excited about new discoveries about dogs’ intelligence and cognitive abilities. But I am even more excited about new reasons to cherish the relationship I have with my girls and that others have with their dogs.