Every pet owner speaks to their dog like a person. While we assume they understand everything we say, a new study suggests this is not entirely true.
While dogs have “human-like” auditory capabilities for interpreting speech sounds, researchers have found that they cannot identify subtle differences between words like we do.
For example, ‘dog’ and ‘dig’, altered by one letter, have entirely different meanings but dogs cannot interpret that change.
“While dogs have remarkable abilities for social cognition and communication, the number of words they learn to recognise typically remains very low. The reason for this limited capacity is still unclear,” reads a study by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
“We hypothesized that despite their human-like auditory abilities for analysing speech sounds, their word processing capacities might be less ready to access phonetic details”
To test this, the researchers measured the brain activity of family dogs using electroencephalography, in which electrodes were taped to their heads. They then played recorded instructions so that the dogs listened to familiar instruction words like ‘sit’ and phonetically similar and dissimilar nonsense words like ‘sut’ and ‘bep’.
In their findings, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on Tuesday [December 8], they reported that while the dogs could differentiate between known instruction words and vastly different made-up words, they could not recognise subtle differences. Instead, they processed them as the same word.
“The brain activity is different when they listen to the instructions, which they know, and to the very different nonsense words, which means that dogs recognise these words,” lead study author Lilla Magyari told CNN.
“They may just not realize that all details, the speech sounds, are really important in human speech. If you think of a normal dog: That dog can learn only a few instructions in its life.”
However, the study did confirm that dogs do properly listen to human speech, and not just respond to familiar humans or body language.
“It shows that dogs can differentiate the words that they know from nonsense words,” Magyari added.