James Werrell

It’s not just Dr. Doolittle who talks to the animals

Dogs, listening to their owner’s voice on headphones, were scanned to determine that their brains processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere — just like humans.
Dogs, listening to their owner’s voice on headphones, were scanned to determine that their brains processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere — just like humans. Eötvös Loránd University

This is frightening. My dog understands me.

Dog lovers have long known that dogs are expert at reading body language and even taking cues from facial expressions to comprehend what their human friends are up to. Dogs also are great at interpreting tone of voice to determine whether we are happy or angry with them.

And many dogs even can be brilliantly intuitive about our moods, somehow sensing if we’ve had a lousy day and need cheering up.

But all that is communication at a fairly primitive level – about what might be achieved trying to interact with a teenager wearing headphones and texting a friend at the same time.

We know dogs are capable of sitting, coming and lying down when we ask them to (at least some of the time), and they know what we’re saying when we repeat simple phrases, such as, “Here’s your treat,” especially if we’re holding a dog biscuit.

But do they also ascertain more than just a few basic phrases?

You bet they do, according to a study by scientists in Hungary. Canine researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest have published what is being called a groundbreaking study showing that dogs not only can understand voice tones and body language but also are able to match hundreds of objects to words and even learn elements of grammar.

To test the extent that dogs can understand language, researchers trained them to sit quietly for seven minutes inside a scanner that measured their brain activity. That, in itself, was a major achievement, as anyone with a squirmy dog can attest.

Once the dogs were in the machine, trainers spoke to them using either a neutral tone or a happy tone of praise. But the key to the experiment was the difference in what the trainers said.

For one round, they would use familiar words of praise, such as “well done” or “that’s it.” In another round, they would use neutral, common words that would have no special meaning to the dogs.

The amazing result was that the dogs would process the words of praise – despite the intonation. They were comprehending the meaning of the words even when the trainers weren’t expressing any particular emotion.

When hearing familiar words, the auditory regions in the right hemispheres of the dogs’ brains lit up just as they do in people’s brains.

As I look back at the behavior of dogs I have known, this shouldn’t have been so surprising. For example, my parents had a Jack Russell terrier who would perk up any time they said the word “walk.”

To avoid exciting the dog, they started spelling it: “Is it time for the dog’s W-A-L-K?”

But the dog learned to spell “walk.” So they spelled it backwards: “Time for her K-L-A-W?”

Same result. You can’t fool a dog that wants to go on a walk.

What worries me is that I have been operating on the assumption that my dog, a Boston terrier, responds only to my tone of voice. I have amused myself by telling him in a lilting, seductive voice, “Yes, you’re a bad dog, a really, really bad dog, so fat and smelly. You’re my little bonehead, aren’t you?”

Is it possible he understood what I was saying? That could have been terribly traumatizing. It might even be the explanation for the torn-up pillow and the feathers all over the bedroom.

I’ve resolved to be a lot more careful about what I say around him. No more jokes about his nonexistent tail. No more making fun of the way he imitates a siren every time a police car or an ambulance drives by. No more trying to fool him about going to the vet.

He apparently knows a lot about what goes on in our house. But at least dogs can’t talk.

Not yet anyway.

James Werrell is the opinion page editor of The Herald.

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