Your dog can understand what you say better than you think, new study shows

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

Our dogs understand us better than they've been given credit for — and scientists say they have the brain wave evidence to prove it.

By placing electrodes on the heads of 18 pet dogs, researchers found striking evidence that the animals did not merely recognize the patterns of sound that come out of their owners' mouths, they actually realized that certain words refer to specific objects.

The findings were reported Friday in the journal Current Biology.

"For decades there has been a debate about whether animals are capable of such a level of abstraction," said study leader Marianna Boros, a neuroscientist and ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. The experiments with dogs knock down the uniqueness of humans "a little bit."

A few exceptional dogs have been trained to learn the names of hundreds of objects. Among the most esteemed was Chaser, a border collie from South Carolina who could remember the names of more than 1,000 toys.

Boros wondered whether more dogs understood that words had meanings but just didn't have a way to show it. Even when dogs succeed in behavioral studies, she said, "you never know exactly what happens in the brain."


So she took inspiration from researchers who study language processing in humans and got her hands on an electroencephalogram machine. The EEG measures brain waves and can gauge the difference between the neural responses to a word that's expected and a word that seems to come out of left field.

With a little cleanser, some conductive cream and gauze, the researchers connected the EEG electrodes to the heads of 27 dogs. Then the dogs listened to recordings of their owners using the familiar words in simple sentences like, "Luna, here's the ball."

After a short pause, the owner appeared behind a window with an object in his or her hand. Sometimes it was the object mentioned in the sentence; sometimes it wasn't. Either way, the electrodes recorded small voltages from the dogs' brains as they contemplated what they had heard and seen.

The tests went on for as long as a dog was willing to stay on its mat and participate, Boros said.


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