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Dogs and Human Speech

Remember the cartoon from the Far Side where the man was disciplining his dog and would put the dog’s name into the conversation to make sure the dog was listening to him? The cartoon had the human words on one side of the panel and what the dog hears on the other side.  The dog heard….babababa Spot babababa Spot bababa Spot.

I have always wondered whether my dogs understood what I was saying. There are just too many times when they pick up their ears and act appropriately. Take Midnight, my 125 lb. American Retriever. I swear he understands certain words. Words like OK and out and walk and go. Use any of the last 3 and he immediately runs to the drawer that holds his leash. Obi, our 16 ½ year old Golden Mix responded quite negatively to cursing and would run away and hide in a closet or in a darkened room like the bathroom. Just the word would set him off even if there was no yelling accompanying it.

Now comes a wonderful study from the University of Sussex, School of Psychology in the UK that indicates dogs actually process speech in a similar way to humans. They reportedly listen to our words, not just our intonation.

According to the study published in the November 26, 2014 edition of Current Biology, mammal communication researchers tested more than 250 dogs to see how they responded to a set of spoken commands. They found that, like humans, dogs use different parts of the brain to process the verbal components of a familiar sentence and the emotion or intonation of the speaker.

Now the researchers, Victoria Ratcliffe, PhD candidate, and David Reby, Ph.D. don’t want you to think that dogs can understand the full complexity of human speech, but rather their perception of speech parallels that of humans. They show that dogs use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the verbal content of speech, and the right hemisphere to process the characteristics of the voice just like humans do. The study suggests that dogs pay attention to the verbal content of human speech and perceive it in a way that broadly parallels human perception.

I am so relieved to learn this. It allows all dog owners piece of mind that they aren’t crazy when they actually think their dogs are listening to them and maybe, just maybe, understanding what they are saying.