As science has discovered, dogs react to their owner’s voices very much like babies do with their mothers. We’re truly not worthy.
According to a raft of studies, while our dogs don’t exactly understand what we’re saying, they like hearing it. In fact, a team of researchers have discovered that dogs have a special attachment to their owner’s voice, much like a newborn baby and its mother.
“To study the brain mechanisms behind dog-owner attachment is particularly exciting, because it can help to understand how similar this unique bond between individuals of different species can be to other well-known relationships between conspecifics (e.g. infant-mother attachment),” said Anna Gábor, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Some years ago we discovered that dog brains are sensitive to verbal praises, but it remained unexplored how the relationship with the speaker affects this sensitivity.”
Simply put, the report (published in the journal NeuroImage) discovered that the reward centre of our dog’s brain is more sensitive to their owner’s voice compared to everyone else.
As Rachael Funnell of IFLScience summarised, “the researchers also found that dogs who were more attached to their owners showed a greater neural response to their human’s voice, demonstrating that they’re capable of recognizing (sic) it when the owner isn’t visible and that it is rewarding to hear even when the dog isn’t being specifically praised. These new insights demonstrate that a dog’s relationship with its owner shares many similarities to that of an infant and its mother.”
Another study measured dogs inside an fMRI scanner with the data showing different brain patterns in the pooches when they hear words they’ve heard before, compared with completely new words.
“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” says one of the team, neuroscientist Gregory Berns from Emory University in Atlanta.
“Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”
The study used a dozen dogs of different breeds, who were trained by their owners to distinguish between two objects – and to retrieve the right object when called. Once the dogs proved they could pick out the correct object each time, the researchers wheeled out the fMRI scanner. Poor Doggos.
The owners were then asked to say the names of the objects the dogs had already learned, as well as gibberish they’d never heard before – like ‘zjzjap’ or ‘Australia’s stable government’.
“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” says one of the researchers, Ashley Prichard from Emory University.
“What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans – people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”
However, due to the nature that different breeds of dog register information, we’re no closer to identify how much of our nonsense they understand, and indeed gain from it.
“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words,” says Berns, “but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go cuddle my dog.