What Your Dog Hears When You Speak

Do you know how smart your dog really is?

Dog owners communicate with their pets in many ways, especially during the training of a puppy or younger dog. It should come as no surprise that rewarding good behavior and giving positive reinforcement goes a long way in the teaching/training process of a dog. Now, a new study shows that when talking to your dog, it’s not just what you say but how you say it, that matters.

Hungarian researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest studied the brain activity of 13 dogs who were trained to lie still in an fMRI brain scan machine. Dog trainers praised the dogs in both a neutral voice and with a higher intonation or ‘praise’ voice while monitoring the reward system of their brains. They also gave the dogs words they did not know in both normal and ‘praise’ intonations.

Silohuette of a girl and her dog

The scans showed that the dog’s reward center was activated only when the trainers used praise words in a praising voice. This demonstrates that the dogs used both sides of their brain to understand the words and to interpret the emotion behind them as concluded in the journal Science.

 “[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,” says lead researcher Attila Andics. “This is very similar to what human brains do.”

This can lead to important improvements and better success when training a new dog or puppy:

  • Praise often and authentically
  • Reward the good things your puppy does in a ‘praise’ intonation
  • Dogs will repeat good/rewarded behavior so as to get praise and a positive response from their owners

It’s just the latest in studies proving that dogs are uniquely and specifically in tune with human emotion and behavior and that they are as in touch with us as we are with them. They do feel a lot of human-like emotions, perhaps more than we give them credit for. 

Another new study published in  Current Biology shows that dogs can distinguish between angry and happy human faces and expressions.

The study, conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, shows that a non-human animal is able to make this distinction in a species other than its own.

“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber, the senior author and head of the research group.

Furthermore, in an article published in The Atlantic, researcher Paul Zak found that dogs are capable of feeling real affection.

Zak studied the levels of oxytocin (the hormone associated with love and bonding) in a dog when it interacted with another animal and found that the dog’s hormone level increased 48 percent, indicating that dogs are capable of feeling affection and/or love. Read more here.