Dogs hear our words and how we say them

dog
Credit: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the emotional tone and the speaker's gender, for instance. Now, a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 26 provides some of the first evidence of how dogs also differentiate and process those various components of human speech.

"Although we cannot say how much or in what way understand in speech from our study, we can say that dogs react to both verbal and speaker-related information and that these components appear to be processed in different areas of the dog's brain," says Victoria Ratcliffe of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Previous studies showed that dogs have hemispheric biases—left brain versus right—when they process the vocalization sounds of other dogs. Ratcliffe and her supervisor David Reby say it was a logical next step to investigate whether dogs show similar biases in response to the information transmitted in . They played speech from either side of the dog so that the sounds entered each of their ears at the same time and with the same amplitude.

"The input from each ear is mainly transmitted to the opposite hemisphere of the brain," Ratcliffe explains. "If one hemisphere is more specialized in processing certain information in the sound, then that information is perceived as coming from the opposite ear."

If the dog turned to its left, that showed that the information in the sound being played was heard more prominently by the left ear, suggesting that the right hemisphere is more specialized in processing that kind of information.

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said -- those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences --but also to other features of that speech -- the emotional tone and the speaker's gender, for instance. Now, a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 26 provides some of the first evidence of how dogs also differentiate and process those various components of human speech. Credit: Current Biology, Ratcliffe et al

The researchers did observe general biases in dogs' responses to particular aspects of human speech. When presented with familiar spoken commands in which the meaningful components of words were made more obvious, dogs showed a left-hemisphere processing bias, as indicated by turning to the right. When the intonation or speaker-related vocal cues were exaggerated instead, dogs showed a significant right-hemisphere bias.

"This is particularly interesting because our results suggest that the processing of speech components in the dog's brain is divided between the two hemispheres in a way that is actually very similar to the way it is separated in the ," Reby says.

Of course, it doesn't mean that dogs actually understand everything that we humans might say or that they have a human-like ability of language—far from it. But, says Ratcliffe, these results support the idea that our canine companions are paying attention "not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say."

All of this should come as good news to many of us dog-loving humans, as we spend considerable time talking to our respective pups already. They might not always understand you, but they really are listening.


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More information: Current Biology, Ratcliffe et al.: "Orienting asymmetries in dogs' responses to different communicatory components of human speech" dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.030
Journal information: Current Biology

Provided by Cell Press
Citation: Dogs hear our words and how we say them (2014, November 26) retrieved 21 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2014-11-dogs-words.html
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Nov 26, 2014
I don't think dogs actually understand any words we speak. Only our tone of voice, combined with reading our body language enables them to tune in to what we're trying to communicate to them.

Nov 26, 2014
I used to play a game with my friend's dog, just slip the one word "walkies," without emphasis, into a sentence. Dog always ran to get her lead. Yeah, dogs are listening.

Nov 26, 2014
its not tone or action, we've tried monotone with no actions and they react to the meaning of the words. They do observe as she can also tell if I'm going to work by what I wear as dress clothing means work (don't bother getting up) while jeans means the day off so she might get to go bye-bye (which she knows spelled out now as well). As a puppy, she heard me use the word 'bad' in a conversation and she barked her disapproval to me even though it wasn't directed to her but she knows 'bad dog'. I was surprised the other day when she barked at me when I told my spouse I was going to vacuum - she hates the vacuum cleaner. My other dog figured out that since I make them relieve themselves before a car ride, he now runs out to do his business when he sees me putting jeans on, then sits in the garage waiting to leave.The different pets know each other's names too, not just their own. They gave different barks for each other and for us when they want something.

Nov 27, 2014
I have a poodle who is super smart and you only have to tell her the name of something once or twice for her to remember it. When she is hearing a new word for the first time, she always cocks her head to the right. She knows the names of all the rooms in the house, all her toys have names, and she seems to even understand qualifiers like "under" and "behind." If she's looking for her toy, you can say "look in the bedroom," and she will run right in there. If she can't find it right away, she comes back and cocks her head to the right. If you say, look under the bed, she runs back in there and looks under the bed. If you ask her "where's the blue ball?," she will go and get it. I'm sure she doesn't know what blue means, but she knows that that particular object is called the blue ball. She also has about 10 very distinctive barks to communicate what she wants. Even from another room, you can recognize "the water bowl is empty," "I want to go outside," or "I want a snack."

Nov 27, 2014
I also have another dog, a German Shepherd mix, who only pays attention to words that directly affect her like chicken, ride, ball, lunch, kibble, play and snack. If she can't eat it or it's not fun, she's just not interested. She makes a great contrast to the smart poodle!

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