Dogs have special ability to react to human speech, study shows

BY Robert Pursell  February 21, 2014 at 5:17 PM EDT

Dogs' brains react to human voices in a very human way, a new study finds. Photo by Flickr user Pim Geerts

Dogs’ brains react to human voices in a very human way, a new study finds. Photo by Flickr user Pim Geerts

In a finding sure to delight many a dog lover, a study published Thursday suggests the brains of canines react to human voices in a very human-like way.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, was conducted by scientists at Eotvos University in Budapest and concluded that dogs’ brains contain a vocal region that functions similarly to the region located in the temporal lobe of human brains. In addition, the researchers found that vocal emotional cues activated a similarly located non-primary auditory region of the brain in both humans and canines.

Translation? The next time you hear a pet owner say their beloved pooch can actually understand what they’re saying, they may be correct.

The study placed 11 well-trained pups and 22 human subjects inside an MRI machine and measured the location and response characteristics of electrical impulses in their brains after playing an array of 200 different noises for them ranging from car sounds and whistles to human voices. The findings were striking.

“We do know there are voice areas in humans, areas that respond more strongly to human sounds that any other types of sounds,” Dr. Attila Andics, the lead author of the study, explained to BBC. “The location (of the activity) in the dog brain is very similar to where we found it in the human brain. The fact that we found these areas exist at all in the dog brain is a surprise — it is the first time we have seen this in a non-primate.”

Beyond simple vocal recognition and processing, the study confirmed something dog owners have long suspected: dogs can understand and react to human emotions.

“We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners,” said Andics, “and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog – but we now begin to understand why this can be.”

Andics said this points to the ancient history between humans and dogs, and that the evolutionary origins of the species’ relationship may have even older origins than previously known.
The study did note, however, that dogs respond much stronger to sounds from other dogs, and while they are able to recognize human voices, their ability to do so was still far less than in that of human brains. Andics also pointed out that the study was only of human sounds, not words, so dog lovers shouldn’t expect their faithful companions to understand every conversation they have around the house. Andics is planning future studies to study the effects of words on dogs’ brains.

Still, the findings are particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with past studies on canine behavior. An Emory University study last October suggested that dogs really do have an emotional connection to their owners, and a Helsinki University study this past December showed that dogs can recognize familiar faces in much the same way humans do. And while Andics’ study comes with the caveat of only testing the dogs with human sounds and not words, dog lovers should consider this: in a 2008 National Geographic study, an Austrian Border Collie named Betsy was shown to be able to learn more than 300 separate words and commands.

The next time a dog’s wagging tail cheers you up after a tough day, there might be more going on behind that furry face than you once thought.