Dogs and Language: it’s What you say AND How You Say it

Probably the most fascinating aspect of my career as a speech-language pathologist is how the human brain perceives and processes spoken language - including the manner in which it is spoken.

It appears that humans do not have a monopoly on this skill in our shared-species households.

A recent study by the Family Dog Project in Hungary published in Scientific American suggests that it’s not just what we say, but how we say it, that is important to our canine companions.

Thirteen dogs, mostly Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, were trained to enter a chamber for functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Using neutral and praising tones, trainers then uttered familiar praise words to the dogs who sat still for seven minutes during the imaging process.

fMRI imaging revealed that - just like humans - dogs process our spoken language on the left side of their brain independently of the tone in which they were spoken, which is processed on the right side. Dogs then combine what we say and how we say it to determine what comes next. Only the combination of a familiar word and a praising tone activated the “reward” center of the dog’s brain.

“Using words may be a human invention, but we now see that the neural mechanism to process them are not uniquely human,” said Attila Andics, PhD, department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, said in the project’s promotional video.

Researchers were careful to imply that a dog’s “understanding” of language is not necessarily the same as ours. Human language is built around a semantic system: a highly individualized library of word-meanings linked to other libraries of associated objects or pictures, letter-symbols and sound-combinations in our brain, all of which are learned over time. The FDP study indicates that dogs are more likely to become familiar with certain human words because of the pleasant associations paired with them.

For example, a dog effectively learns how to “sit” when the word is delivered with an upbeat inflection and is followed by a reward for the behavior. A favorite toy named “monkey” may elicit an anticipation of play when that name is said with sing-song excitement.

By age 60, the average human will have learned about 48,000 words spanning all parts of language (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) while the average canine vocabulary is about 165 words. Sterling exceptions do exist. "Chaser," the Border Collie, has learned the names of more than 1,000 objects and actions associated with them including “take,” “nose” and “put [in].”

Our Lilly, the Boston terrier, may never reach doggie Mensa status. But over a short period of time she has gone from a dog who had no idea how to play or how to soothe herself to one who can go get her “tater” (her favorite chew toy) and “bring it” to bed.

Given a “paw”sitive learning environment, our dogs can learn many new human words which stimulate brain activity and make life more fun (and less frustrating) both for our dogs- and for us.

Right, Lilly?