As a dog owner, you already knew this to be true: your furry friend obeys basic commands like "sit" and "stay”, seems to sulk at the mention of a "visit to the vet", and is always up for "a walk" around the neighborhood.
But the question remains: Do they understand what we say or how we say it?
That's what one research team set out to determine. Their study, published in the journal Science, is the first of its kind to investigate how dogs process speech. Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, and her team trained dogs to sit motionless in an fMRI scanner.
"Intonation works similarly for many species," says Andics. "For example, excitement is expressed with a higher voice. But humans also have words… and this opens up a whole new world of communication. Is this a uniquely human brain capacity to use words, or can dogs also make sense of what we say?"
The group of 13 dogs consisted of mostly border collies and golden retrievers, and each canine participant was scanned while they listened to their trainer speaking. Watch how it's done here:
The results? They discovered that, just like us, dogs use the left hemisphere of their brains to process words, and the right hemisphere to process intonation of speech. What's more, the dogs were processing vocabulary, regardless of intonation. Meaning, they understand both what you say and how you say it.
"It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match," Andics says in an official statement. "So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant."
The takeaway? Keep talking to your dog, and not necessarily in that sing-song voice. Dogs are intelligent creatures that understand you on a deeper level. (But of course, you guessed that already, didn't you?)