Dogs can recognise half-hearted praise

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Pack of trained dogs around the fMRI they lay in while listening recordings of their trainer’s voice.
Enikő Kubinyi

Dogs process words and tone with brain regions similar to humans – and it appears they can tell when you’re praising them, but don’t really mean it.

Attila Andics from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary and colleagues trained 13 dogs to lie completely still in a brain scanner while they listened to recordings of their trainer praising them or saying neutral words of varying pitch, or intonation.

As the dogs listened, their brain was scanned with a functional magnetic resonance imager, which is a non-invasive way of measuring blood flow in the brain and determines which parts light up during a task.

They found that, regardless of intonation, dogs do process words – and in the left hemisphere of their brain, like humans. (We do it in a specific region called Wernicke’s area, which sits behind your left ear.) 

Dogs also recognised each word as distinct.

In terms of intonation, though, the pooches processed this through their right hemisphere – again, just like us.

“What makes lexical items uniquely human is thus not the neural capacity to process them, but the invention of using them,” they write.

This isn’t the first study of dogs in. In 2014, Andics’ team showed where dogs’ voice processing regions were and how similar they are to us. 

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The dogs were trained to lie completely still during the brain scans.
Enikő Kubinyi

Andics and his crew also saw when the dogs heard praise spoken with high pitch, their reward centre lit up. The part of the brain activates when the animal feels pleasure, such as when eating, having sex or being patted.

“It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match,” Andics says.

“So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant.

“Again, this is very similar to what human brains do.”

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