Training Tuesday: How Does Your Dog Know What You’re Saying?

By Claudia Bensimoun

First published in The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)

A recent study looks at how dogs process verbal communication.



Image Credit: Pixaby

Dogs are our best friends. We can’t avoid communicating with them, nor would we want to. We’re constantly sending messages — with our words, hand gestures, eyes and even our scent. And we know that training for agility and other dog sports requires communicating with our dogs to get the desired behavior. But how do they know what we’re saying? Do they understand us when we speak?

A study from Emory Health Sciences focuses on the brain mechanisms dogs use to differentiate between words.

“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that. We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports,” says Ashley Prichard, Ph.D., now a Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology and first author of the study.

The Study

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” adds Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, Ph.D., founder of the Dog Project and senior author of the study. “Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”

Prichard and Berns, in a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, used brain imaging to see how dogs process words they have been taught to associate with objects. Twelve dogs of varying breeds were trained to voluntarily enter an MRI scanner and remain motionless. The dogs then were taught to retrieve two different objects, which had been given names. One object was a stuffed toy and had a soft texture, and the other object was a rubber toy that felt different from the stuffed toy. The dogs learned to fetch a specific object upon request and were rewarded with food or praise. Training ended when the dog showed that he understood the difference between the two objects.



Image credit: Pixaby

During one experiment, the owner stood in front of the dog at the opening of the MRI scanner and called out the toy names at set intervals. He also showed the dog the matching toys throughout the experiment. For example, a Lab mix called Eddy heard the words “piggy” or “monkey” when his owner held up the toys. After that, the owner spoke gibberish as he showed the dog new objects, like a hat or doll. The results were a little surprising, as the dogs showed more brain activity when hearing the new pseudowords than they did for the trained words.

Pritchard says, “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t. What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

The researchers hypothesized that dogs would show more neural activation when a new word was heard because they felt that their owners wanted them to understand the new word, and the dogs were trying to do that. “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food,” explains Berns.

For more on this article, please visit USDAA.

Woofs & Wags!


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