If you’re speaking to me, it’s not just what you say but how you say it that matters. A new study published this week in Science finds that dogs also pick up on these important, yet separate details. And there's more. Not only does this study add to our knowledge of how dogs attend to human language, it also raises important questions about the difference between processing human speech and understanding it.

For the last few years, Attila Andics and his colleagues in Hungary (Family Dog Project Facebook, Twitter) are one of a handful of research groups training companion dogs to voluntarily go into an fMRI. Once in, the dogs are presented with different stimuli as their brains go under the giant figurative microscope. 

In the recent study, dogs heard both familiar praise words and neutral words presented with a praising or neutral tone. The researchers found that, like us, dog brains separate out the vocabulary bits from the intonation, processing familiar words in the left hemisphere and intonation in auditory regions of the right, a finding that corroborates and extends earlier behavioral studies. The conclusion, according to Science, is that "dogs seem to understand both human words and intonation."

Your dog, your words?

Before discussing this with your dog — "I knew you could understand me this whole time!" — the caveat to this research is that a dog processing words — registering, "Ah! That’s familiar!" — and a dog understanding words as you intend are not necessarily the same thing. 

Adam Miklosi, one of the study’s authors and head of the Family Dog Project weighs in over email, "'Understanding' is a tricky word. Studies using brain imaging technology cannot firmly say that the activation of a specific brain area indicates 'understanding.' For sure, dogs in this study reacted to the meaningful words, that is, to those words that their owners often use when they want to attract the dog's attention or provide a positive feedback for the dog. So in this sense our dogs recognized these words as familiar and probably meaning something good."

Could dogs understand our words as we intend? Good gosh of course! Just look at Chaser the Border Collie who knows the unique name for over 1,000 different objects, her wordy prowess tested and documented in two scientific publications. Chaser knows the difference between the many toys and objects in her life, that Acorn is not Crybaby, and that Slug is different from Tie Face. She can also perform different actions towards the objects, like fetch, tease, and tug. Chaser’s left hemisphere is on fire.

Miklosi would probably agree: "The other important aspect of [our] study is that the left brain of the dogs processed the meaningful words independent from the intonation. This means that the brain could probably recognize that 'good dog' is the same expression independent of how it was said."

But for understanding, remember that Chaser and dogs like her have undergone many hours of training with words and objects. Chaser is processing, and she also displays understanding. Is this how everyday dogs are using our words? Maybe yes, maybe no. A few years back I wrote an article for The Bark magazine exploring if dogs understand our words. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, shared this enlightening story about trying to figure out whether her dog Willie knew the name of her partner, Jim. 

"To teach Willie, I would say, 'Where’s Jim?' and Jim would call Willie over. When Willie consistently went to Jim, I’d say it as Jim was driving up, and Willie would run to the window. One day, Jim was sitting on the couch, and I said, 'Where’s Jim?' and Willie ran to the window, all excited. This difference in definitions is more common than people realize — dogs don’t have the exact same concept of words that we do.”

I imagine that Willie’s left hemisphere was highly engaged when he heard that exciting phrase, "Where’s Jim." But the understanding? Or at least the understanding according to us? At that time, nope, not there. When it comes to our words, factors like context, tone, and word choice all come into play.

Reflecting on their study, Miklosi reminds, "We think that intonation is important. Owners should learn how to praise a dog, and then use the same expression in similar way." Additionally, he adds, "Consistency in praising and in general in communication with the dog is important."

Could your dog understand you? Sure. But does your dog understand you? Who am I to say.  

For more on the study, check out the video abstract:

References and more reading 

Andics A, Gábor A, Gácsi M, Faragó T, Szabó D, Miklósi Á. 2016. Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs. Science, In press.

Hecht J. Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Bark.

Pilley JW, Reid AK. 2011. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes. 86, 184–195.

Pilley JW. 2013. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation, 44, 229–240.

Ratcliffe VF, Reby D. 2014. Orienting asymmetries in dogs’ responses to different communicatory components of human speech. Current Biology, 24, 2908-2912.