When you talk to your dog, it’s listening not just to the words you are saying but how you’re saying them.
That might not be a surprise for some dog owners, but now science has taken over to give us factual proof. Researchers and scientist have explored this theory by using an imaging machine to look inside the brains of 13 dogs as they listened to their trainer’s voice.
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The reward pathway in the dogs’ brains lit up when they heard both praising words and an approving intonation but not when they heard random words spoken in a praising tone or praise words spoken in a flat tone, according to a report in the journal Science.
“Dogs process both what we say and how we say it in a way which is amazingly similar to how human brains do,” says Attila Andics, neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary.
Dogs use both the left and right hemispheres are their brain. The left hemisphere of the brain processes meaning, while intonation is analyzed in the right hemisphere. When dogs hear speech they seem to separate the meaning of words from the inflection, and each aspect of speech is analyzed independently. That means dogs are more like humans than we even realize.
The dogs were willing volunteers in the study and were trained to lie still in the brain scanner. They used a training technique developed by the lead researcher and head trainer Marta Gacsi, which allowed them get up and leave the machine whenever they wanted. It was clear to the dogs that their human companions loved it when they followed the rules and remained still, and were disappointed when the dogs removed themselves, so they followed the rules.
“The difficult aspect of the training was to convince dogs that ‘motionless’ means really motionless. They can’t move more than 3 millimeters in any direction, otherwise we have to throw out all of the data,” said Andics.
“Humans seem to be the only species which uses words and intonation for communicating emotions, feelings, inner states,” he says. “To find that dogs have a very similar neural mechanism to tell apart meaningful words from meaningless sound sequences is, I think, really amazing.”
Brian Hare, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences in Durham, N.C. says, this study is important because he thinks it’s the first major finding using noninvasive neuroscience with awake animals, usually the animals have to be restrained or drugged, which can change the outcome of the study. “That just changes everything,” he says. “You literally can see what’s going on in their brains just like you would with people. And it’s really the first time that this has led to a big discovery and I think we’re going to see a lot more of this.”