Do Dogs Understand Words or Emotions?

dogs, dog lifespan, longevity
A large-breed Great Dane sniffs a much smaller Chihuahua. (Image credit: Elf via Wikipedia |

Come boy! Off the couch! Aww, who's my widdle fur baby?

It's an age-old debate: Do dogs understand the words their owners say to them, or are they just cuing in to the tone of voice?

It turns out it may be both: Man's best friend not only hears the meaning of human speech, but also perceives the emotion behind it, new research finds.

Although the new findings don't prove that dogs fully understand all of the emotional aspects of human speech, they do show that dogs are at least paying attention to it, said study co-author Victoria Ratcliffe, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Sussex in England. [See video of the dogs responding to human speech]

Sit! Heel! Good boy!

Dogs sit, heel, shake paws and snuggle in response to commands and endearments from their human companions. Though a dog lover might insist that their little Hercules understands every single word, skeptics insist that dogs just pick up on people's intonation or other nonverbal cues.

Indeed, studies have shown that dogs are attuned to people's posture, gaze and other forms of nonverbal communication, which makes it tricky to figure out just what words they understand.

And on the other hand, some research suggests people may wrongly project human understanding and motivation onto their furry friends. For instance, one study found that dogs don't truly feel guilt when they give that sad-puppy look after eating food from the table or peeing on the floor.

To figure out exactly what was going on in dogs' heads when people speak, Ratcliffe and her colleagues brought 250 pet dogs of all breeds — from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane — into their lab. The dogs were placed in a room with speakers on either side of their heads.

The sound that a dog hears in its right ear is processed mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain (and vice versa). So when a dog turns its head right as it listens to a sound, researchers can conclude its left hemisphere played a strong role in processing that sound, Ratcliffe said.

In the trial, the researchers played a clip of the owners saying the words "Come on, then!" but with the emotion electronically stripped out of their voice, and with the sound changed so the voice itself could no longer be identified, Ratcliffe said.

But other times, the dogs heard the owners say the same phrase, but with words garbled so they could not be understood. This emphasized the intonation and emotional content of the speech.

The researchers found that dogs turned their heads to the right when they heard words without the emotions, suggesting the left hemisphere was processing that speech. By contrast, the dogs turned their heads to the left when they heard the emotional words, suggesting the right hemisphere was processing that content. And when they heard pink noise, a kind of static, the dogs didn't turn their heads in either direction.

Parallel processing

Just like dogs, humans process language in the left hemisphere and emotional content in the right, suggesting that dogs and humans have at least some similarity in language processing, Ratcliffe said.

"We can say at least that they seem to be getting both the verbal and the emotional, because they have biases for both," Ratcliffe told Live Science.

However, it's still not clear exactly what the dogs understand. As a follow-up, Ratcliffe said, the team would like to give the dogs other commands with different types of information removed, and then see what they actually do. For instance, if a dog is told to stay, will it actually sit still indefinitely? (Those types of tests can be tricky because dogs may understand commands but choose not to follow them, Ratcliffe added.)

Though fascinating, the findings aren't all that surprising, Marc Bekoff, author of "Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence" (New World Library, 2014), wrote in an email to Live Science. Humans and dogs go way back, and humans and dogs have coevolved.

"I bet we'll learn more and more about how we influenced dogs and they us as they formed a close and enduring bond with us and we with them," said Bekoff, who was not involved in the study.

The findings were published today (Nov. 26) in the journal Current Biology.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.