“Dog Brains Process Human Speech in The Same Way We Do” states an article by researchers at the University of Sussex (UK). This study investigated the possibility that dogs use the left and right sides of their brains like humans do: the left side is utilized more when processing meaningful verbal content, the right side more when processing emotional communication. The researchers found that dog brains do process in a similar way that human brains do. When exposed to words in a familiar language, dogs utilize the left side of their brains to a greater extent, when exposed to words in an unfamiliar language, they use the right side more (the study was done in a non-intrusive way). Further research is certainly indicated as the authors state:
“We can’t say from our study exactly how much our dogs understand when we speak to them. However, the results do indicate that they don’t just pay attention to who is speaking and their tone of voice – they also, to some extent, hear the words we say.So even if he doesn’t always respond, he is listening.”
Listening, yes, sometimes, understanding meaning, I think less often than most dog owners assume. This research does confirm that dogs have the ability to separately process the meaning of words from the speaker information that human speech provides. Dogs can recognize the sounds and patterns of familiar language, but that does not mean they understand meaning. Perhaps it is similar to my experience when I hear someone speaking Spanish. I had 6 years of instruction in Spanish during grades 7-12, and have retained some knowledge – I know it is meaningful verbal content, and am able to understand some of it, but much of it is unintelligible. When I hear someone speak an Asian language, all of it is unintelligible, and there is no way I can respond to it.
And, of course, responding to human speech is much of what dog training is about. The more we can try to put ourselves in our dog’s experience, by information gained from research or by meaningful analogy, the better we will be able to communicate with them. When we ask “are they listening?” we should also always ask “do they understand?”.
Understanding is so important! I try to ensure that all of my clients understand that. I used to ask that they expect the dog to perform reliably 80% of the time before the assume he “gets it” when it came to a command. Not sure if that is still somewhat of a standard, but it was a good gauge. The fact that there can still be a 20% error rate even with understanding is a whole new post…dogs have good and bad days just like we do!