Dogs Might Not Totally Understand Us, But That’s OK
Rebecca Nelson / Getty
We would never call your dog dim-witted, but European scientists’ new research indicates that dogs might not know exactly what we’re saying when we talk to them.
The Hungarian researchers’ findings, as reported by CNN, suggest that dogs can tell the difference between words they know—“sit” and “stay,” for instance—and words that are totally different, like, say, “barnacle.” (These are Daily Paws examples, since the researchers used Hungarian words.)
The trouble comes when the dogs listen to the familiar words and the words that sound similar, lead researcher Lilla Magyari told CNN. According to the data collected by the electrodes, the dogs processed those sets of words as the same, not noting the difference that’s clear to us humans.
“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 is able to learn only a few instructions in its life,” Magyari told CNN.
Magyari and her team tested 17 dogs by attaching to their heads electrodes that monitored the dogs’ brain activity each time they listened to one of the three kinds of words—known, “nonsense” words that sound similar to known words, and dissimilar-sounding nonsense words.
“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 recognize these words,” Magyari told the cable news channel.
The study released last week comes four years after researchers at the same Hungarian university (Eötvös Loránd University) found that dogs can not only understand words but also discern the emotion behind them, according to The Washington Post.
But as last week’s study suggested, they know certain words but maybe not well enough to separate them from ones that sound close to them. So, yeah, sometimes you might not be on the same page as your dog. Happens to the best of us.
A potential example: My kinda-smart standard poodle Riley seems to know some of the words or phrases associated with her favorite things: cookies, car rides, and sticks. What this study suggests is that I could talk to her about tookies, sar mides, and vicks, and she would—maybe—think of those as her favorite words. (Don’t come for me, scientists. I’m extrapolating, for sure.)
Magyari says more research is needed to explain why dogs might not be noting the differences in certain words. But hey, they are listening to us, she says—unlike some other pets.
You probably don’t have brain-monitoring equipment at home, but feel free to try a dumbed-down version of this experiment. Try saying words similar to your dogs’ favorite sayings and see if they react.
Heck, maybe your dog is the smartest and everyone else needs to catch up.