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Study: Dogs Have Some Understanding of Language

Scans of dogs’ brains showed they responded differently to words they had previously been taught.

© (Rebecca Nelson/Getty Images)   Scans of dogs' brains showed an increased activation in auditory regions in response to unassigned words compared to trained words.

By Alexa Lardieri, U.S. News & World Report

A new study suggests that dogs have at least a basic understanding for the meaning of words that have been previously taught.

The study, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, was one of the first to use brain imaging to examine how dogs process words they've learned to associate with certain objects.

It found that dogs can differentiate between words they've heard before and words they've never heard.

Gregory Berns, senior author of the study and neuroscientist at Emory University, said in a press release it's known that "dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands." However, previous research suggests that dogs may rely on other cues, such as gestures and emotional expressions of their owners, to follow commands.

The researchers examined dogs of varying breeds that were trained for several months by their owners to retrieve two different objects based on the objects' names. The dogs were trained to fetch one object or the other and were rewarded with food when successful. Training was considered successful when the dog consistently retrieved the correct object.

Researchers then conducted functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans on the dogs while their owners stood in front of the machine calling out the name of each object while showing the corresponding toy. The owners also called out meaningless words while displaying random objects. The fMRI results showed increased activation in auditory regions of the dogs' brains to the unassigned words compared to the trained words.

This response is opposite to that of humans, Ashley Prichard, first author of the study, said in the release.

"We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don't," Prichard said. "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 believe that dogs have this response because they sense their owners want them to understand what they're saying, so they try to comprehend the language in order to please their owners.

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Pets Magazine: Study: Dogs Have Some Understanding of Language
Study: Dogs Have Some Understanding of Language
Scans of dogs’ brains showed they responded differently to words they had previously been taught.
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