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Our dogs may appear to have selective hearing when it comes to commands, but research suggests they can understand us better than we think. A study published in the journal NeuroImage reveals that dogs listen to human conversations.
A team led by Dr. Atilla Andics of Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University conducted the study. It involved 18 dogs of various ages and breeds who were asked to listen to passages from The Little Prince—one that was played regularly and another that was changed to seem odd. While the canines were listening to the snippets, MRI scans were performed on them.
The dogs’ primary auditory cortex responded differently to normal readings than to modified readings, demonstrating that they could distinguish between speech and non-speech. They also observed that the brains of the dogs responded differently to familiar and new languages, suggesting that canines may comprehend language-specific regularities.
The findings match previous research suggesting that animals and humans share some abilities. Dr. Andics said, “Our capacities to process speech and languages are not necessarily unique in all the ways we like to think they are.”
The team also discovered that the non-speech activity pattern was stronger. “In humans, you typically see stronger response to speech,” Andics told the Guardian, adding that dogs appear to have a separate mechanism at work and are not “tuned in” to speech.
“Probably what they detect is that the normal, natural speech sounds natural. And the other one sounds surprising, strange, not the typical pattern we hear,” he said.
More research is needed, according to Andics, to discover if dogs have always been able to accomplish this or whether it is a result of the thousands of years of domestication they have experienced.
Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, welcomed the findings.
“[It is a] very nice demonstration of just how much dogs are listening to our voices and how much information they’re pulling out, even if that is not necessarily speech that is directed to them or containing words they might recognise. Almost everything that you can find about human speech and human language and you say, ‘ah this is unique to humans’, you find an animal somewhere that can do it,” she said.