“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself,” observed Josh Billings.
Due to the uncomplicated and unconditional nature of their love, dogs are often seen as simple creatures – even stupid ones.
New research, however, has proven that our canine companions may know more about us than we think.
According to a study published in Science Magazine, our dogs may have a broader understanding of human language than we’ve previously given them credit for.
Common thinking dictates that dogs understand the tone of our words more readily than the verbiage. This is why, when we punish or praise our dog, we over-emphasize our tone to sound more or less approving than we would if we were speaking to a human. We want desperately for them to understand us – and our emotions, we reason, will connect with them more fully than our words.
There may be some truth to this. However, according to this study, there is much more lying under the surface.
Hungarian researchers trained a group of dogs – varying widely in breed and age – to sit still in fMRI scanners.
They then proceeded to study the way that their brains responded when their trainer spoke different human words in different tones. For example, she might say “Great Job!” in a high-pitched and happy voice, and then use the same intonation to say “Tax Report!”.
In doing this, the researchers found that the dogs were not only responsive to intonation. They were proven to understand the more complex nature of the words themselves, even when they were mismatched with their trainer’s emotional cues.
Even more interestingly, the researchers found that the dogs’ brains processed these pieces of language in much the same way that we do as human beings.
The dogs were shown to process tone with the right side of the brain and vocabulary with the left – exactly like we humans do. Then, they combine the information to determine the meaning of the words. They recognize each word as being distinct, and have a surprisingly large capacity for human vocabulary.
This means that we are not tricking our dogs when we say something unkind or neutral in a super happy voice. They are also not likely to be fooled by nonsense words spouted off in a pleasant tone. Much like human beings, they understand – and likely appreciate – when praise is genuine. As such, the study showed the greatest activity in the reward centers of the dogs’ brains when they heard both a positive message and positive tone. One without the other was shown to confuse them – just as it would confuse us.
“A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things-a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty,” wrote John Grogan in Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog. It would seem that, with every canine study we read, the same message applies. Our best friends are amazing, and we usually don’t give them enough credit. Snuggle your dog today, and when you do, stop for a moment to appreciate their unsung genius.