While this cartoon always makes me laugh, I’ve long doubted it’s an accurate representation. Our Princess Pooch, for example, has a wide vocabulary; she knows all our other pets’ names, recognizes the difference between “ball” and “bone,” and is so focused on the words “pool,” “swimming” “outside,” and “bed” that we often resort to spelling them so she can’t anticipate what we’re going to do.
Now science has shown what many of us know: in addition to listening for tone (friendly or mean), how the pitch goes up or down and even the rhythms in our speech, our dogs really do understand what we’re saying.
Psychologists reported Wednesday in the journal Current Biology that dogs do pay attention to the meanings of words. And they process that information in a different part of the brain from where they process emotional cues in speech.
To learn this, Victoria Ratcliffe, a grad student at the University of Sussex in England, set up a great experiment to determine whether dogs can discern meaningful words from gibberish–no more “blah, blah, blah, Ginger!”
Ratcliffe brought 250 dogs into her lab, and tested each one by putting a speaker on either side of each dog’s head and playing the command “to come” out of both speakers. She then began to manipulate the speech; sometimes she removed all inflections in the voice, sometimes she kept the inflections but replaced the meaningful words with gibberish. During this process, she recorded which way the dogs turned their heads–left or right. And, “even though both speakers were playing the same sounds, a clear pattern emerged”:
When the dogs heard commands that still had meaningful words in them, about 80 percent of the animals turned to the right. When they heard commands with just emotional cues in them, most dogs turned to the left.
That results show “that dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences.” In addition
the study also suggests that a dog’s brain breaks up speech into two parts: the emotional cues and the meaning of the words. Then it processes these two components on opposite sides of the brain: emotional cues on the right, meaning of words on the left. (Yes, it’s opposite to the way the dogs turned.)
So next time you wonder if Fido is listening, you best be sure not to say anything you don’t want him to know.
Next up: do dog’s gossip?