That adorable head-tilt your dog does when you talk to him may be a sign of what many of us already believed: our four-legged friends totally get us.
A groundbreaking new study suggests dogs can understand more than just the intonation of our words, as experts previously assumed.
“What we found was really surprising,” said lead researcher Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.
“Dog brains care about both what we say and how we say it.”
His research, which was published in the journal Science, reveals dogs (like people) use the left hemisphere of their brain to process word meaning and the right side to analyze intonation.
The scientists found this by studying the brain activity of 13 family dogs (mostly golden retrievers and border collies). The pups were trained to sit still for seven minutes in an fMRI scanner while their trainer spoke to them. They were reportedly not restrained and could leave any time.
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Some words said were positive — like “well done” or “that’s it.” Others were essentially meaningless — like “yet” and “if.”
Each was delivered in both a neutral tone and a happy one. The familiar words were understood regardless of tone, according to brain activity images. Meaningless words, on the other hand, didn’t have the same effect.
What’s more, the dogs only registered they were being praised if the words and intonation were positive. That’s when the reward centers of their brains lit up.
“Using words may be a human invention but now we see the neuromechanisms to process them are not uniquely human,” Andics said.
While other species probably have the mental ability to understand language like dogs do, their lack of interest in human speech makes it difficult to test, Andics added.
Dogs are likely more attentive to what people say to them because they’ve been socialized with humans for thousands of years.
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Last year a study showed dogs can be generous to their canine friends.
And earlier this year, it was discovered dogs can also perceive emotions in humans (i.e. more proof dogs “get us”).
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— With files from Frank Jordans and Alicia Chang, The Associated Press