Dogs can not only process human words, but can even understand intonation

Remember how you laughed at your neighbour who has long conversations with his pet beagle? Well, the joke’s pretty much on you now. Scientists in Hungary have proven that dogs can not only process human words, but can even understand the intonation. and no, we’re not talking about just ‘sit boy’ or ‘fetch’. The study conducted with 20 well-bred pets has concluded that their vocabulary could be a lot more than previously estimated.

Not long ago, the scientific community had devastating news for dog lovers: man’s best friend may not be man’s best friend after all and Fido might hate your hugs.

Fortunately, the latest revelation in dog science isn’t a downer. a new study, conducted by the Family Dog Project in Hungary and published in Science, says our canine companions can understand the meaning and tone of human speech, and that they process language in the same way humans do.

To find out how dogs process human speech, researchers trained a group of 13 extraordinarily patient pooches (a mix of border collies, golden retrievers, Chinese cresteds, and German shepherds) to lay motionless in an MRI machine. The scanner logged their reactions to a recording of a trainer saying positive phrases (like “good boy”) in a positive tone of voice and a neutral tone, as well as neutral words (like “as if”) in both praising and neutral tones.Dogs-can-not-only-process-human-words-but-can-even-understand-intonation,

When the scientists analysed the brain scans, they found that – regardless of the intonation used – the dogs processed the meaningful words in the left hemisphere of the brain, just like humans do. The neutral words did not garner the same response, showing that dogs have some understanding of their meaning (or lack thereof).

The pups also processed intonation in the right hemisphere of their brains, again like humans. and when they heard words of praise said in a praising tone, another important part of their brain lit up: the reward area. The study shows that the canine brain integrates meaning and tone, using the two types of information to enhance each other, just as we do.

according to lead researcher, attila andics, “The results were very exciting and surprising.”

Researchers looked at the brain activity of dogs to see how it changed before and after the recordings of their trainers’ voices.

according to the results, praise words resulted in higher left hemisphere activity for both types of intonation. This suggests that humans and dogs utilize the left brain to process words that are recognizable and that meaning is attached to.

On the other hand, there wasn’t that much left hemisphere activity related to the neutral words. Instead, differences in intonation (not the word itself) resulted in right hemisphere changes, specifically in the auditory region of the hemisphere.

according to andics:

“It is actually the very same part of the brain in this right auditory brain region that we found in dogs and also humans in an earlier study that responds to the emotional content of a sound. It is not a mechanism that is only there for language stimuli, it is the same mechanism dogs use for processing emotional sounds in general.”


according to andics, “From this research, we can quite confidently say if they only hear you then it is not only how you say things but also what you say that matters to them.”

and it’s important also to note that body language, facial expressions and other such cues factor into how a dog responds.

according to andics:

“The neural mechanism humans have for processing meaning in speech, so for processing word meaning and intonation, are not uniquely human — they seem to be there in other species … It is not the result of a special new neural mechanism but the result of an innovation. We invented words as we invented the wheel.”

While it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, this news is important in understanding our K-9 friends’ point of view.

So if nothing else, we can be thankful for that.

In the meantime, we’ll continue treating our dogs like our best friends. Because no matter what, that’s what they’ll always be to us, while we have them and long after they’re gone.