How do dogs process your words? New study seeks answers.

Did you ever wonder what makes your dog respond to new words you never taught him before?  Scientists are now studying the brain mechanisms dogs use to try and find the answer…


 

New study focuses on the brain mechanisms dogs use to differentiate between words

Experimental results suggest that dogs have at least a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.

When some dogs hear their owners say “squirrel,” they perk up, become agitated. They may even run to a window and look out of it. But what does the word mean to the dog? Does it mean, “Pay attention, something is happening?” Or does the dog actually picture a small, bushy-tailed rodent in its mind?

One of the first studies using brain imaging to probe how our canine companions process words they have been taught to associate with objects, was recently conducted by scientists at Emory University. The results suggest that dogs have at least a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.

Study overview

For the current study, 12 dogs of varying breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two different objects, based on the objects’ names. Each dog’s pair of objects consisted of one with a soft texture, such as a stuffed animal, and another of a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination. Training consisted of instructing the dogs to fetch one of the objects and then rewarding them with food or praise. Training was considered complete when a dog showed that it could discriminate between the two objects by consistently fetching the one requested by the owner when presented with both of the objects.

During one experiment, the trained dog lay in the fMRI scanner while the dog’s owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog’s toys at set intervals, then showed the dog the corresponding toys.

Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for instance, heard his owner say the words “Piggy” or “Monkey,” then his owner held up the matching toy. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as “bobbu” and “bodmick,” then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.

Results

The results showed greater activation in auditory regions of the brain to the novel pseudo-words relative to the trained words…

The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so.

Other ways dogs process your words and learn

This conclusion does not mean that spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. In fact, other research also led by Prichard and Berns and recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and to scent cues than to verbal ones.

“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer. From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”

-Ashley Prichard, Researcher, PhD/ABD, Emory’s Department of Psychology


 

Journal Reference:  Ashley Prichard, Peter F. Cook, Mark Spivak, Raveena Chhibber, Gregory S. Berns. Awake fMRI Reveals Brain Regions for Novel Word Detection in Dogs. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2018; 12 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00737

Study overview


 

Also seeIt turns out dogs sort of understand what we’re saying

 

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