Dogs Understand What We Say—And How We Say It, New Study Says

In fact, they process speech in a similar manner to humans.

Photo by Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

Confirming what many pet lovers already suspected to be true, a new study from Hungarian researchers suggests that dogs might actually understand what their owners are saying to them. The researchers found that dogs care both about what we say to them as well as how we say it, and combine the two to interpret the words' meaning. The results of the study are published in the journal Science.

Humans understand speech by relying on both vocabulary and intonation, or the rise and fall of a person’s voice as he or she is speaking. To determine whether dogs depend on these two factors as well, the researchers trained 13 dogs to lay motionless in an fMRI, which analyzed each dog's brain activity as they listened to recordings of their trainers.

The recordings consisted of four combinations of vocabulary and intonation: praising words (“good boy”) with praising intonation, praising words with neutral intonation, neutral words (“however”) with praising intonation, and neutral words with neutral intonation.

The results confirmed that the dogs process speech very similarly to humans—they process vocabulary and recognize distinct words with the left hemisphere of their brains (as humans do), and process intonation separately in the right hemisphere in the brain (also like humans). The dogs' reward centers were activated with praise, but only when the praising words were said in praising intonation.

“This shows…that dogs not only separate what we say from how we say it, but also that they can combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant,” Attila Andics, lead researcher of the study, said in a statement.