Speaking Their Language


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You know the feeling—that one when you’ve been talking to your dog, and you get that unmistakable sense, as he tilts his head to the side and stares at you sympathetically, that he understands what you’ve been saying. Turns out, you may be right.

A recent study observed that dogs process both the actual words they hear and the tone of the speech, processing language in a way that one of the scientists called “amazingly similar” to how humans do it.

Perhaps even more amazingly, the experimenters performed the study using functional MRIs of the dogs’ brains, which required them to sit motionless in an MRI machine—not an easy task, even for humans. This look inside the brains of the 13 dogs participating in the study showed that their reward pathways lit up when the trainer spoke praising words with a positive tone, but didn’t when the dogs heard random words in a positive tone or words of praise in a neutral tone.

In another study, researchers at Emory University dug into the nature of the human-animal bond by examining whether dogs preferred a food reward or praise from their owners. Out of the 13 dogs in the study, most either showed a stronger response to praise rewards or had an about equal response to praise and food rewards. The results indicate that for many dogs, owners are far from just the hand that feeds them. Their owners also provide them with important social rewards that inspire reactions that may be analogous to human responses to praise, according to study’s lead scientist.

While the humanization of pets is nothing new to the pet industry, as evidenced by the large and growing selection of higher quality food and treats in more varieties, increasingly sophisticated toys and more, these studies show there’s more to it than just spoiling cute pets. In some ways, pets—well, dogs at least—are people too.

 

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