<! – -> Eddie, one of the dogs who participated in the study, is in the fMRI scanner with two…
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When your dog hears the word squirrel it can hang up or even run to a window and look out. But, for your dog, the word “something happens?” Or does your dog show a little bush-tailed rodent?
According to a new study, dogs have at least one rudimentary neural representation of importance for words that they have learned and can distinguish words they have heard before from those they do not have.
The study, published October 15, 2018 in the reviewed journal Frontiers in Neuroscience used brain imaging to investigate how dogs process words that they have learned to associate with objects.
Ashley Prichard is a graduate candidate in Emory University’s psychological institution and first author of the study. She said in a statement:
Many dog owners believe that their dogs know what some words mean, but there is certainly not much scientific evidence to support it. We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves – not just owner reports.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns is senior author of the study and author of the best selling book What it’s like to be a dog . Burns added:
We know dogs have the ability to process at least some aspects of human language because they can learn to follow verbal commands. However, earlier research suggests that dogs can rely on many other clues to follow a verbal command, such as glances, gestures, and even emotional expressions from their owners.
The researchers focused on questions about brain mechanisms that dogs use to distinguish words, or even what constitutes a word for a dog.
For the current survey, 12 dogs of different breeds were trained to retrieve two different objects, based on the object’s name. For the experiment, the trained dog was in the fMRI scanner while the dog owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog’s toys at certain intervals and then showed the dog the corresponding toys.  Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador blend, heard, for example, that his owner says the words piggy or monkey then his owner held matching toy. As a control, the owner spoke gibberic words – such as bobbu and bodmick – then raised new items like a hat or a doll.
The results showed greater activation in the brain areas of the brain to the novel invented words compared to the educated words. Pritchard said:
We expected dogs to neurally discriminate between words as they know and words they do not. What is surprising is that the result is opposite to that of human research – people usually show greater neural activation for known words than new words.
The researchers predict that the dogs can show greater neural activation to a new unknown word because they feel their owners want them to understand what they are saying and they try to do it. Berns said:
Dogs will ultimately delight their owners and maybe also get praise or food.
Dogs can have varying capacity and motivation to learn and understand human words, but they seem to have a neural representation of the meaning of words they have been taught, in addition to just a low-level Pavlovian response.
Source: Wake fMRI reveals brain regions for novel word detection in dogs
Bottom line: A new study looks at how dogs are processing words.
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