Can Dogs Detect Praise in Owner’s Voices

Have you ever tried to trick your dog? Use an excited voice inflection with your dog to make him believe he’s going for a walk? Or, say nonsense with a praise-like fluctuation of your voice?  It’s a mean joke, but scientist over at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary are using this trick to study how dog’s process human voices.


Dog’s Reward Center Activates


Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Eotvos Lorand, and her team have been conducting studies with pet-owners and their dogs to determine if dogs can determine intonation in human voices.  When dog owners “baby talk,” or use praise-like inflection with their voice, owners can see a visible reaction in their dog\’s body language. This reaction has never been studied empirically, until now. In the first study where animals are neither restrained or sedated, results have shown that dogs use the left hemisphere of their brain to process language, and their right brain to process meaning.


13 dogs went through the study, and the results give insight not only into dog cognizance, but humans as well.


Each dog was placed into a neural scanning machine developed by Marta Grasi, a professor at Eotvos Lorand who specializes in ethology–animal behavior relating to socio-cognitive function. What makes this study special is that the owners coaxed their dogs to stay still while in the machine. If the dog moved more than three millimeters the data would be unusable. This means that not only could scientist conclude that dogs can process different parts of speech independently, but that a human voice was the dominating factor. Because dogs could not see their owners, scientist knew the brain functioning was happening specifically based on voice.


Dog owners prompted their dog’s using trick words that were nonsense while intonating their voice to mimic praise as a control. Dog owners then actually praised their dogs. The results showed that intonation is analyzed by the left hemisphere, while definitions of words are analyzed by the right hemisphere. This shows that dogs can decipher tone and meaning. The dogs also could leave the machine at will, but stayed because their owners praised them for this task.


Results Challenge Previously Understood Science


For years it  was believed that humans were the  sole mammalian species that use inflection to decipher words, emotions, and feelings. We now know that dogs can separate the two. Dogs don’t just use distinctive body language through communication like tail-wagging and raised hair, but can decipher definition of words and correlating emotion. Humans were thought to be the only species that made this evolutionary leap. Whether this leap took place within dogs naturally, or through domestication is still being studied.


The language abilities and processing parts of the brain are more exaggerated and developed within humans, but Fido knows the difference between owners saying, “You’re in trouble” with a baby voice, or an intonation that tells them they\’re actually in trouble. This is something most pet owners most likely already knew, but know science has the data to back it up.

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