Do dogs really understand the words we say? This study aimed to find out

16 Oct 2018

Eddie, one of the dogs that participated in the study, poses in the fMRI scanner with two of the toys used in the experiments, ‘Monkey’ and ‘Piggy’. Image: Gregory Berns/Emory University

Does a dog associate a word you say with the object you’re talking about? A new study has scanned their brains to find out.

We recently found out that our dogs are not as smart as we might think they are, but they are still capable of hearing us and, in many cases, know what we are referring to.

However, when we tell a dog to go get a ball, does it actually picture a spherical object in its mind, or does it just alert them that there is an object it needs to catch?

Now, a team of researchers has attempted to solve this by delving deep into the minds of dogs. The first paper, published in Neuroscience by a team from Emory University, used brain imaging technology to see how dogs process words they have been taught to associate with objects.

Piggy or Monkey?

The team behind this study was the first to get dogs to be comfortable enough to enter and stay within a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner without needing to be restrained.

The results suggested that they do have a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for learned words, differentiating one word from another.

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” said neuroscientist Gregory Berns, senior author of the study. “Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”

For the study, the team selected 12 dogs of varying breed that were trained to retrieve two different objects based on the objects’ names. Each dog’s pair of objects consisted of one with a soft texture, such as a stuffed animal, and another of a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination.

In one instance, while in the fMRI scanner, a Golden Labrador-Retriever called Eddie was presented with ‘Piggy’ and ‘Monkey’ and told which of them was the corresponding object. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as ‘bobbu’ and ‘bodmick’, then held up novel objects such as a hat or a doll.

A large, black dog called Stella lying on the floor with a toy cat and cylindrical toy.

Study participant Stella with her toys used in the experiment. Image: Gregory Berns/Emory University

‘Dogs ultimately want to please their owners’

Ashley Prichard of the team said: “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t. What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans – people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

The researchers hypothesise that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so. Berns said: “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food.”

The team admitted, however, that a limitation of the study is the fact that the brains of different breeds of dog can differ significantly in shape and size. A previous paper published by the team also found that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and to scent cues than to verbal ones.

“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard said. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic