They Understand More Than We Know

Dogs have a lot more going on between the ears than we realize

By Rob Breeding

The more we study dogs the more we understand there may be a lot more going on between the ears of our four-legged friends than we realize.

An interesting new study from Hungary indicates dogs may understand the meaning of some words. We’ve long known that our pooches respond to tone and intonation. Everyone has pulled the same dumb trick with your dog, speaking in an excited, “attaboy” voice while saying things like “Your breath stinks like a rotting deer carcass,” or “Does Fido want a bath?” and then giggled as the pooch wagged it’s tail so hard it was practically a lethal weapon.

But some words, it seems, mean something to dogs, irrespective of tone. The researchers were able to measure this by first training dogs to sit perfectly still for up to eight minutes. This allowed the researchers to put the dogs in MRI scanners to measure how their brains reacted when they heard different words or sounds.

What the researchers saw was that dogs responded to tone with the right sides of their brain. Say “yet” for instance, in a bland monotone and nothing. But say that same meaningless word in that happy “attaboy” voice and the right hemisphere got busy.

But take a word that you regularly use with your dog — in my case the phrase “Find birds” fits — and the dog’s brain lit up regardless of tone. The difference was that the activity was on the left side of the brain.

That’s the same side humans use to process language.

This doesn’t prove dogs comprehend language. Rather, it’s just compelling evidence dog brains deal with language in a fashion similar to human brains. And the more we learn about the way dogs respond to humans, the stronger the case becomes that they actually understand at least a handful of words.

My English setter Doll certainly understands “find birds.” It’s the first command she hears as we head afield, and I repeat it throughout the course of a hunt. I use it when Doll gets a little distracted, say after a long spell when we haven’t found any birds and she’s a bit bored. I never use an “attaboy” tone when I give the command, but the phrase rarely fails to reset her hunt drive.

By the way, I don’t really “command” Doll. That’s the thing about bird dogs, you never force them to do anything. It’s instead a partnership based on a mutual interest in hunting, along with the dog’s strong instinct to please its human. Handlers who think they’re going to “command” their bird dogs in the field will likely ruin them instead.

What I really do is make suggestions to Doll. She usually listens.

I have no doubt Doll has mastered the meaning of at least a handful of words and phrases. She knows the meaning of “Sit!” for instance. Her guilty behavior when she’s too excited to respond appropriately says it all.

In the not-too-distant past humans concluded there was some form of higher cognitive processing that took place only between the ears of our species. We think and reason and understand the complexities of language in a way that sets us apart the beasts, or so we thought.

That’s a position increasingly hard to support, however. Consider the evidence that humpback whales defend not just other humpback whales, but other vulnerable types of sea life from the ocean’s great bully, orcas. To explain such behavior as a simple expression of survival instincts defies, well, reason.

What I fear most is that some animal linguist will soon demonstrate that chukar have calls for “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Hunting season will become far more complex after I read the results of that study.

Doll, however, will be fine. Even if she does understand a word or three, there’s no indication she’ll be sitting down anytime soon to peruse the journal “Science.”

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