New study reveals dogs can understand human speech

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By Sam Siomko, Staff Writer

All dog lovers are guilty of talking to their canine companions. We ask them about their day after we get home from work or explain why they cannot have a piece of our chocolate cake. But what if our dogs could actually understand us?

According to a study recently published in Science, they can. They might not be able to understand when you explain to them that the garbage truck is not a threat, but the way they process speech is surprisingly similar to how humans do. Researchers discovered this by sending canine volunteers through an MRI machine. It does not hurt the dogs, but it allows researchers to determine which parts of the brain are activated when the dogs hear human speech.

The dog’s left brain processes the words as being positive, such as “good boy,” even if they are not said in an enthusiastic tone. Likewise, their right brains would register that the words were said with a happy tone, even if the words were ones they did not recognize. When those positive words were said in an enthusiastic tone, the dog’s reward centers in the brain were activated, much as they would if the dog had received a treat or a head scratch.

The human brain processes speech in a very similar way, where the right and left brain cooperate to provide a more complete understanding of what is being said. So why can dogs understand human words? Dogs have lived alongside humans for generations, but that is not long enough to evolve an understanding of speech. It is more likely that dogs developed the ability to understand speech long before being domesticated; other animals also likely have this skill. However, the ability to invent language is uniquely human, so Spot will not be giving lectures any time soon. This study does give insight into how our own ability to create language began.

So next time you are trying to persuade your dog to give you more room on the bed, remember that he might understand you a little more than you think. And maybe, someday far in the future, he will be able to tell you he loves you, too.

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