02 Jan What Happens When a Dog Hears Words?
Us humans have an adorable habit of talking to our dogs in silly, childish voices usually reserved for our own babies. The reason for this is that it’s actually a good way to bond; dogs know it’s friendly and like it, and start to like us more because of it.
But we’ve often wondered how much of the words we say they actually understand. Yes, they can comprehend the tones of our voice, but what about words themselves? It seems like they understand some; they respond to their own names, know words like “sit” and “shake” and maybe even “roll over” if you’ve got a really talented one one your hands…
But scientists want to take things deeper than that. Gregory S. Berrns is a neuroscientist at the Department of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He founded the Dog Project, a massive study involving training dogs to calmly enter fMRI scanners so that scientists can scan their brains and see which parts are lighting up and when.
In this particular experiment, researchers took 12 dogs, all of different breeds, and attempted to teach them names of two dissimilar toys. Like one would be “ball” and the other would be “stuffie”, or something like that.
The dog’s owners would work with them for months to reinforce the names of these toys, and it actually worked. The dogs were able to discern the name of one toy from the name of the other. And that was the end of what I call Phase I.
I call it Phase I because it sounds cool.
Phase II involved the dogs getting into the fMRI with the owner right outside, holding up the toys and saying “ball” or “stuffie,” or whatever names they’d picked out for the toys. Researchers operating the MRI would see what parts of the brain did what when the dog heard the words and saw the toys.
But then, a curveball. The owners would hold up a new object the dog had never seen before, and call it a word the dog had never heard before.
What the researchers learned from the fMRI is….very complicated. But basically, the brain “lit up” more when the owner spoke the new words than the old ones. Which is interesting, because the opposite happens for us humans. Our brains light up more when we heard words we do understand.
So does this mean that dogs recognize words? Welllll….no it doesn’t. Remember that they used 12 different breeds, and the brains of different breeds not only look different, but will work in different ways. Because of complication, nothing the study showed can be considered definitive, only general.
Previous studies by the same researchers indicate a dog’s ability to comprehend words is actually closely tied to visuals. They recommend doing things to show the dog what the word means, rather than telling it what the word means. If you think about it, the owners didn’t tell their dogs what a ball was, they showed the dog a ball and kept repeating the word.
So, the next time you’re trying to teach Fido that playing fetch involves giving you the ball after he’s caught it, maybe get on all fours and fetch it yourself first. It might help.