Quite a lot has been talked about doggy intelligence in recent years. But regardless of what the studies say, there is something that anyone who has had a canine friend can attest: the dogs understand. Now, research published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience has found that in addition to emotions, dogs seem to understand words.
Brains in the fMRI
A study conducted by American neuroscientists analyzed dogs within an fMRI that measures brain activity. The research found different brain patterns in the dogs when they heard words they had heard before, compared to completely new words.
Obviously, that is not enough to suggest that dogs are actually imagining a plate of food when they hear the words “eat!”; but it does indicate that some type of recognition is taking place, based on the word itself.
The research team says it is an important step in understanding how dogs process language, in particular, because it uses the data collected from dogs rather than the owner’s observations, which may be subjective.
“We know that dogs have the ability to process at least some aspects of human language because they can learn to follow verbal commands,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta (USA). “Previous research, however, suggests that dogs can rely on many other signals to follow a verbal command, such as the look, gestures and even the emotional expressions of their owners.”
The research used 12 dogs of different breeds, trained by their owners for several months to distinguish two objects and to retrieve the correct object when its name was said. Once the dogs showed they could choose the right object each time, the researchers went on to the fMRI scan experiments.
The owners were then asked at the end of the scanner to say the names of the objects the dogs had learned, as well as “pseudo-words” that they had never heard before, such as “prang”, “ropp”, or “cloft”. In parallel, the owners held objects, both with which the dogs had been trained, or random objects such as hats or dolls.
When the results were gathered, they showed that the brain activity in the canines increased when they said and presented new words and new objects. The team says it could be because the dogs wanted to please their owners and struggled to understand what he was telling them.
“We expected to see dogs discriminate between words they know and words they do not know,” says one of the researchers, Ashley Prichard of Emory University. “What is surprising is that the result is the opposite of that of human research: people tend to show greater neuronal activation for familiar words than for new words.”
Different parts of the brain
Although the increase in brain activity was constant in all dogs when new words were pronounced, it did not occur in the same area of the brain. In half of the cases, it appeared in the parietotemporal cortex, which researchers believe could be used in order to distinguish between orders. In the other half, increased brain activity appeared elsewhere: through the left temporal cortex (linked to audio processing), the amygdala (emotion management), the caudate nucleus (learning and motor control) and the thalamus ( motor and sensory signals).
The scientists suggest that this difference in the results may be due to the fact that different breeds of dogs were used, each with its own way of following orders. So at the moment, we do not know with certainty what happens inside the brain of a dog when they hear words. But they seem to be smart enough to identify at least some of the words that are said to them.
“Dogs may have different abilities and motivations to learn and understand human words,” says Berns, “but they seem to have a neural representation of the meaning of the words that were taught to them, beyond a low-level Pavlovian response,” he concludes.
Canine intelligence has been the subject of much study, and recently it has been discovered that not all dog breeds have the same intelligence.