If you have ever owned a dog you’ll know that sometimes it really feels like they understand you.
Well, it turns out that you aren’t as crazy as your friends may have initially suspected.
Scientists in Hungary recently conducted brain scans on thirteen dogs and found that they are able to discern between words and the intonation with which they’re said.
This means that if you were to say ‘good boy’ in a sombre voice, your pet would still recognise it as positive.
The new study builds on previous research into the language connections between dogs and their masters.
In 2010, psychology professor, John Pilley, used a 9-year-old Border Collie to prove that dogs are able to match over 200 words and objects. He repeated the names of toys over-and-over – starting with a blue ball – and gradually his four-legged-friend built up a vocabulary of over a thousand objects.
Once Pilley realised the canine capacity for vocabulary he wanted to test whether they could understand the way words worked together.
He tested three elements of grammar including “take ball to Frisbee” and, with practice, the Collie was able to interpret the commands.
However, what Pilley's experiment didn't touch upon was that dogs actually use the same regions of the brain to process language as people.
Although this information had already been published by Current Biology in their Cell Press Journal, this is the first time we have been able to actually see it working inside a dog’s brain.
Lead researcher Attila Andics and his team have published their findings in the Science journal, including an explanation about how they managed to train the dogs to lie still in the fMRI machine.
Once they managed to get the dogs still, the researchers played voice recordings of the dogs’ respective owners through headphones and monitored their reactions to the different words, phrases and tones of voice.
They used a variety of vocabulary: words of praise and neutral words like ‘however’ or ‘because’ and alternated between high-pitched and neutral intonations.
The scans showed that there was an increase in left hemisphere activity when the dogs heard words of praise, regardless of which intonation the researchers chose. This evidence suggests that dogs use the left hemisphere of their brain to process meaningful words.
Similarly, there was an increase in the auditory region of the right hemisphere, when there was a change in intonation but not with the actual words used.
Andics and his team also monitored responses in the reward centre of the brain and found it only responded when there was a correlation between words and tone.
“From this research, we can quite confidently say if they only hear you then it is not only how you say things but also what you say that matters to them,” the lead researcher explained.
The study ultimately proves that “the neural mechanism humans have for processing meaning in speech are not uniquely human - they seem to be there in other species.”