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Your dog understands you more than you understand him. A recent study has shown that dogs know when they are being praised. Researchers were able to prove that dogs understand not only the tone of your voice, but can also distinguish quite well between neutral and positive words. This is the first study to provide conclusive evidence of language processing in a dog’s head.
In the study, the researchers scanned he brains of thirteen family dogs belonging to four different breeds while they listened to a series of neutral or praising words. They observed that different areas of their brains lit up depending on the meaning and the tone of the word.
To accomplish this, the researchers had trained all the dogs to lie completely still in an fMRI scanner for the brain scans. They did not restrain the dogs in any way and gave them the choice of leaving the scanner as and when they please.
Once the dogs were in the MRI machine, they were played a recording of Hungarian words spoken in both a positive and a neutral tone. They included positive phrase like “ well done”, “clever” and “that’s it”, as well as neutral sounding phrases like “yet”, “such” and “as if”.
Who’s a good boy?
The left hemisphere of their brains responded very strongly to the meaning of all the words, just like our brains do. Irrespective of the intonation, praising words were linked to a greater response in the left hemisphere. On the other hands, neutral words did not have any such variance.
Meanwhile, parts of their right hemispheres picked up on the emotional content conveyed by the word, regardless of what it actually meant. It should come as no surprise that words that were delivered with a positive tone were associated with a very strong coordination between auditory regions and reward processing centers.
Praising words delivered in an encouraging tone garnered the strongest responses. Not only does the dog brain seem to process the intonation and meaning of the word, it was also able to combine both of them for reward processing.
What’s the catch?
Although the difference between the involvement of the right and the left hemisphere is convincing, the results pertaining to the reward centers cannot be established as definitive. It is a very small area of the brain and overlaps with many others. So, that finding cannot be categorically stated as true with all conviction just because it rings true. Before the results are normalized, the study will have to be performed on a much larger sample set. The study also failed to check if individual dogs were prone to hemispheric biases. Studying the pattern of brain activation in wolves might shed more light on this.