(CNN)Do you ever wonder whether Fido really understands what you’re saying?
He might be catching on to more than you think — and your intonation when saying certain words is just as important to him as the words themselves, according to a small study published in the journal Science on Tuesday.
Dogs use the left hemisphere of the brain to process words, similar to humans, said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Etvs Lornd University in Hungary and lead author of the study.
Meanwhile, the study also suggests that dogs use a right hemisphere brain region to process intonation independently of words, which means they may separate what you say from how you say it.
Man’s best friend’s brain
“It was surprising that dogs, like people, have a clear left hemisphere dominance for processing meaningful words and that they combine word meaning and intonation to arrive at a unified representation of meaning,” Andics said.
“What makes dogs special is that they pay attention to human social signals, including speech,” he added. “This study is the first step to understanding how dogs interpret human speech, and these results can also help to make communication and cooperation between dogs and humans even more efficient.”
The study involved 13 dogs — golden retrievers, border collies, a German shepherd and a Chinese crested — who were trained to lie down and remain still for more than seven minutes while in a brain-scanning MRI machine.
The researchers used the machine to record and measure neural activity in the dogs’ brains while they listened to a woman trainer, whom they were familiar with, recite various words in various intonations.
“It reminds me how, as a kid, for fun, we would insult our family dog, Benji, in a happy tone of voice. And he would wag his tail enthusiastically. We used to think that was very cute, and it seems to show that the content of the word is not important — only the tone of voice with which it is said,” Wynne said. “This study shows that my childish self was wrong: The dog’s brain really can discriminate meaningful from meaningless words.”
Scientists are still scratching their heads about whether other non-human animals can process words and intonation in the same way dogs do, Andics said. “We don’t know. It has never been tested.”
However, the researchers posit in the new study that what makes language uniquely human may not be the brain’s capacity to process words and meaning. Rather, it might be the human invention of words and our ability to give words meaning.
The study “provides interesting new evidence that dogs are tracking several of the same linguistic features that humans do, and that dogs seem to understand the intent behind some of our utterances,” said Laurie Santos, psychology professor at Yale University, who has studied the cognitive capacities of animals but was not involved in the new research.
“I think it shows the way that domestication has shaped dogs to pay attention to yet another important human social cue,” she said.