Your dog can hear you, but can they really understand?

People really love their pets and there’s plenty of proof. 57% of Canadian households own pets. According to Statistics Canada, in 2019, Canadians spent about $9.6 billion on grooming, toys, vet visits and food for their furry family. This number has been increasing exponentially over the years.

Today, most dog owners literally treat the pet like family. Our dogs go where we go, we buy presents for them, we actually may talk to them - as if they may even talk back! A lot of dog owners would agree that the family dog will listen better than some of the actual people living in their homes.

Dogs have superpower hearing (at least compared to humans)

If you happen to own a dog and often talk to him/her, do you ever contemplate how much they really do understand? We realize that dogs have a spectacular sense of hearing and hear better than us, by far. Dogs hear almost twice as many frequencies as people. Also, dogs can hear FOUR times further than we can — so what our ears can hear from 25 yards away; our dogs can hear exactly the same sound, the same way, over an entire football field, 100 yards!

Although our dogs can hear better than us, do they understand what they hear?

One study published in the journal ‘Current Biology’ and another, published in ‘Science’, both arrive at the same answer. YES. The dog may not comprehend everything that’s said, however, the dog listens and pays close attention very much like humans. The studies revealed that dogs, much like humans, respond to our emotional tone of our voices as well as the words being said.

Dogs and humans listen to speech in similar ways

The research suggests that people and dogs listen to speech in very much the same way - we both respond to vocalizations — what’s being said — along with emotional tones used during speech, like how it’s actually being spoken.

David Reby, a supervisor of one study, pointed out that, "This is particularly interesting because our results suggest that the processing of speech components in the dog's brain is divided between the two hemispheres in a way that is actually very similar to the way it is separated in the human brain.”

As it pertains to language, we are all “lefties”

In people, the left hemisphere of the brain handles most verbal processing — which is what we say. Speech using exaggerated, upbeat vocal inflection — which is how we say it — is computed in our right hemisphere.

The dogs that were part of the study showed that they listen exactly the same — an ability that was once widely thought to be unique to human beings. Upon unfamiliar language being presented to them, the focus shifted from the linguistics of the content to the emotional sound.

If you have traveled to a country and been unfamiliar with their language, you can see how this works. When you listen to language you don’t understand, your focus shifts to nonverbal cues like intonation, pitch and inflection to attempt to dissect clues about what you’re hearing. It just so happens that our pups do the same thing when they hear speech that is not familiar to them.

Fooling Fido isn’t as easy as you may think

Researchers in the second study attempted to trick dogs by saying words out of context, like using praising and positive intonations (for example, they replaced a praise-worthy “good boy!” with the word “however”). Surprisingly, brain scans taken during the exercise revealed the dogs simply didn’t fall for it - they weren’t fooled! Researchers noticed the left hemisphere of the brain was not activated. These results contradict the assumption that dogs only understand the tone of our voices, but have no idea what the words mean.

Good listeners turn out to be great companions

All of this research is great news for animal lovers who find joy in talking to their four-legged friends. Your dog might not comprehend every little thing you say, however, he actually is focused on both the content of your conversation and the emotional inflection you’re using.

So, by all means, keep talking to your dog! But make sure you say nice things, using a nice tone. Keen hearing acuity as well as the ability to process actual language similar to a human, turns your dog into an ideal listener and just exaggerates the fact that dogs are, indeed, our best friends. Lastly, watch your language!

By Starkey Canada

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