We’ve all heard a story of a whip-smart dog who learned strategic words, like “walk” or “treat.” But do those dogs really understand human language, and if so, what are the limits on their language learning? A burgeoning field of scientific research is beginning to find some answers.
What does my dog hear when I speak to him?
Before he learns word associations, your dog hears “yadda, yadda, yadda” when you speak to him. It is not what you say, but how you say it that sends him the desired message. If your tone reflects pleasure, love, sadness, disappointment, or worry, your dog will pick up on it. If your volume changes from soft to loud, he will pick up on that, too. Dogs respond to certain intonations and volumes, regardless of what is being said. For example, if you speak at a regular volume, then suddenly shout, your dog will know that something is up and he should pay attention. Similarly, your dog detects tonal changes from happy to demanding, or sad to cheerful.
Previous studies have shown that many animals, from songbirds to dolphins, use the subcortex to process emotional cues, and the cortex to analyze more complex learned signals—even though they can’t talk. Zebras, for instance, can eavesdrop on the emotions in other herbivore species’ calls to learn if predators are nearby.
It’s likely that human language evolved from such cues, recruiting the same neurological systems to develop speech, notes Terrence Deacon, a neuroanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
And as domesticated animals that have evolved alongside humans for the past 10,000 years, dogs make special use of this ancient ability to process human emotions, Andics adds.
“It helps explain why dogs are so successful at partnering with us”—and at times manipulating us with those soulful eyes.
11 Sounds Dogs Make and What They Mean
Dogs who are able to identify hundreds—or even thousands—of toys by name are really rare. That’s why they make the news and books are written about them. Most dogs are not nearly as skilled at discriminating among so many different words, or learning what they mean.
A new study investigated what happens in dogs’ brains when they hear words, and the results explain the miscommunication most of us have from time to time with our dogs. The question the researchers asked was: How well can dogs differentiate words they already know from similar-sounding nonsense words, and from nonsense words that are very different phonetically?
Using specific brain-activity measurements called event-related potentials, the responses dogs have to words can be measured and recorded in a noninvasive way. The dogs are awake during the study, and do not need specific training in order to participate. Electrodes placed on the dog’s head allow researchers to record relevant brain activity in response to hearing sounds—either of real words or of nonsense words.
Experience improved dogs’ performances on these tests. The more experience they had with a word, the better they were able to recognize it. That’s consistent with what Dr. John Pilley says—“Learning builds on learning”—which relates to teaching college students as well as teaching his Border Collie, Chaser, to identify more than 1,000 different toys. Familiarity with toy names allows dogs with large vocabularies to choose the right one, which takes a lot of practice and experience.