Many dog owners would say that they believe their canine companions can understand what they say, but experts in the field have been skeptical until a recent study shed some light on the subject. This new study proves that dogs do process human speech very similar to the way that we do.
A doctoral candidate from the University of Sussex, Victoria Ratcliffe, and her partner Dr. David Reby have published a study in the journal Current Biology that shows that canines perception of speech is very similar to humans. However, they stress that their research does not in any way suggest that dogs can understand the full complexity of human speech.
Past research has shown that humans mainly use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the content of speech and the right is used to process the characteristics of different voices and the emotional content of the speech. Similarly, studies have been done on wild animals that support the same findings, but there has never been a study done on the way that domesticated animals perceive human speech.
Ratcliffe and Reby used 250 dogs for their experiment. For each dog, a speaker was placed on the left side of the head and another speaker was placed on the right side of the head. First, they played the command “to come” out of both speakers at the same time. To the dogs, the command sounded normal; it had emotional cues and meaningful words.
Then they began manipulating the speech. Sometimes they removed the inflection in the voice, and other times they left the inflection but turned the words to gibberish. Each time they changed the sound of the command, they recorded the way that the dogs turned their heads.
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Because the left ear sends information to the right side of the brain, and vice versa, the results supported the thesis. About 80 percent of the dogs turned their head to the right when they heard a command with meaningful words in it. When only the emotional clues were left, most of the dogs turned to the left.
This proves that dogs are able to differentiate between meaningless sound sequences and those with meaning behind them. This research also shows that, much like humans, dogs break up speech into two parts; the meaning of the words and the emotional cues. Canines also have the ability to process the two parts on opposite sides of the brain.
It does seem that dogs process speech similar to humans, but experts believe that the human process is a little more complicated than that of a canine. This research will be used to better understand the ways that we communicate with dogs and how we can do it more effectively.