If you’re anything like the skeptics, you figured that dogs don’t truly understand what we say – they just listen to our tone of voice, right? According to the journal Science, you’re wrong.
Researchers in Hungary trained 13 dogs to sit still in an fMRI machine. And what a task that must have been! While in the scanner, a trainer repeated words/phrases to them. Some of them were praises like “good”, “well done”, and “clever”- they are quite a bit more proper than us Americans after all. Other meaningless, neutral words were repeated, such as “however” and “yet”. The trainers spoke the meaningless phrases in both a monotone voice as well as a perky, praise type voice.
You guessed it. Regardless of whether spoken to in a neutral voice or a perky voice, the dogs responded the most to the praise words. The reward centers in their brain lit up regardless of the tone of voice that was used, just as a human’s would.
Dogs rely on both the tone of our voice in addition to vocabulary to interpret meaning.
Awake canine neuroimaging has allowed us hoomans to gain a lot more information on what drives the behavior of our best friends. In an attempt to bolster the credibility of fMRI as a predictor of behavior, a study out of Emory University was recently published, evaluating activation of the ventral caudate (part of the brain that plays a crucial role in executive functions and associative learning) with both food and praise. Of the 15 dogs the researches evaluated, 13 of 15 showed significant more activity in the caudate (compared with the control group) with reward-predicting stimuli as compared to food. The degree of caudate activation turned out to be a very good predictor of whether a dog would select their owner or food in a Y-maze. The study goes to show why social interaction and praise can be even more effective in training exercises than food rewards.
So what did we learn? Yes, your dog really does love you. And yes he does understand what you say. I don’t know about you guys, but we’re going to have to start spelling in this household.