Can dogs understand the words we use?

Do dogs know what we are saying?
Do dogs understand the word we use? © Pixabay.

Tell a well-trained dog to sit down and they’ll usually sit down. Tell a very well trained dog to roll over and you’ll soon be dishing out another doggy treat. But do our pets really understand what we say to them? Or are they simply reacting to the strange noises coming from our mouths?

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To search for answers, two research groups used MRI scanners to see which parts of a dog’s brains responded to human speech. The first team of scientists played recordings of a human voice saying neutral and positive words in different tones. The results were published in Science magazine in 2016 and they were pretty amazing – at first.  

An exciting discovery

The research showed that dogs use different parts of the brain to process language and tone. It appeared that the emotional element of processing tone was done by the right side of the brain; the left side seemed to be dealing with the words. What’s more, the left side of the brain still responded to positive words spoken in a neutral tone, suggesting that dogs understand the meaning of words. This was huge news. The only other species known for this left brain bias is a very  peculiar creature which is sometimes referred to as a “human being.”

It’s the kind of work that gains worldwide coverage from both the scientific community and the public press; the researchers must have felt very pleased with themselves.

Scratch that and let’s start again

But fast forward six months and things suddenly looked very different. Here’s a quote from a follow-up report published by the same team: “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs: the directions left and right were inadvertently switched in reporting the results from dogs’ brains. This was caused by an error in interpreting the coordinates of MRI images.”

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In other words, a collection of the world’s smartest people mixed up the results. Pretty embarrassing! But what did it mean for our dogs? Is all the rolling over and begging nothing more than a Pavlovian response? Not quite.

A research group in Atlanta did a study on dogs and lexical processing, which is the ability to distinguish “real” words for made up ones. In the human brain, the area linked with language is much more active when it hears a “real” word. This wasn’t really the case with the dogs. They appeared to be more biased towards how a word sounds rather than what it means. These sounds also activated the part of a dog’s brain that is linked to action.

So what does all this mean?

A dog can’t abstract any meaning from the word sit. They have no understanding of how the word exists within a web of other words and contexts. For example, to understand the word sit, a person needs to understand many other concepts including stand, chair, and even more abstract ideas like why?

This is way beyond a dog’s cognitive ability. Instead, dogs understand that the sound of the word “sit”  is linked to an action that is then linked to positive emotional experiences. Think back to how you trained your dog and it will make sense.

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So can a dog understand what I’m saying or not?

Yes, they can, but only sort of.

Read also: How the music of Bob Marley and others can help nervous dogs

Ashley is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK. When he's not writing, he enjoys reading, martial arts and meditation. Unfortunately he doesn't have the space or the time to own a dog, so he volunteers as as dog buddy, which basically means he'a a dog babysitter. He walks them, feeds them, and generally just chill out with them. It's awesome.