“If you can hear me human, for the love of all that is holy, why did you do this to me!?”
Let’s talk dogs
(Andics et. al. 2016)
The short answer is no, dogs do not understand human language. A recent study published in the journal Science looked at this question using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) with dogs (Andics, et. al., 2016). A fMRI works by using continuous scans of the brain to see what regions of the brain are being used during various activities, in this case listening to human speech. These types of studies are rare with dogs, and animals in general, because of the challenges associated with training a dog to sit still inside a big, kind of loud machine.
Even though the study did not show that dogs understand human language, there is some evidence that they are able to differentiate between different words and intonations. Even more interestingly, the dogs were able to distinguish between different word/intonation pairs. For example, if the human said “super” with a flat tone, the dog didn’t seem to interpret this as praise. Whereas if they said “super” in an excited tone the dogs interpreted this more pleasurably. The same was true for non-praising words paired with praising intonations (i.e. saying something like ‘doorbell’ in a cheery voice). This finding is significant because it indicates that dogs are able to discern different words and neurologically process them differently depending on the tone with which they hear it.
“Did someone just say a word with a positive intonation? No? Sorry, I misheard you.”
The study suggests that the dogs didn’t develop this ability in response to living with humans, but rather the specific brain regions used existed before humans and dogs began cohabitating. In a nut shell, the brain regions associated with the dog’s ability to recognize different words are much older than the relationship that dogs and humans have had, evolutionarily speaking. This study is not interesting because of what it tells us about dogs but rather, what it tells us about how language developed in humans.
To be clear, this study is NOT saying that dogs can understand language. For that to be the case, the dogs in the study would need to recognize words, intonation (and many other prosodic cues), and syntax. Doing all of that together is WAY harder than figuring out when we are saying a good word in a good way. However, the abilities that they do have are impressive! And they come as no shock to dog fanatics everywhere.
I would like to see this study repeated but next time using cats. I imagine that the results would be similar, with one variation. Where cats may understand our words and intonation like dogs, they choose to ignore everything that we say.
“What do you mean by ‘get down!’ I’m sorry I just don’t understand…”