New Study Says Dogs Might Understand More Than We Think

by Sundays

Person and golden retriever on a pier

Walk, treat, time to eat! These are all words and phrases we are pretty sure our dogs know, but can our dogs understand more words than those geared directly toward them?

According to a recent study published in the journal Current Biology, dogs may understand words in a similar way to humans.

We know that dogs can understand command-type words and actions like “sit” and “stay”, but definitive proof that dogs comprehend certain words that refer to specific objects, nouns, has yet to be found. 

While absolute confirmation might not have been reached, Lilla Magyari, an associate professor at Stavanger University in Norway and Marianna Boros, a postdoctoral researcher at Eötvös Loránd University have made some headway. 

The two decided to mimic previous studies that had investigated the comprehension of infants before they could speak, with dogs.

For the experiment, 18 dog parents said words for objects their dogs already knew. Then, the owners held up either the matching object or a different one while small metal discs harmlessly attached to the dogs’ heads measured brain activity in a process known as electroencephalography (EEG). 

By using EEG, there was no need for dogs to engage with a learned behavioral response that you would see triggered with command-like phrases and words. Assessing the dogs’ brain waves allowed researchers to assess their passive understanding of the objects being shown.  

In 14 of the 18 dogs, brain activity was different when they were shown an object that matched with the word, compared to one that mismatched. Researchers said that the resulting brain activity was the same as those produced by humans in similar experiments.

Still, some believe that this only showed that dogs understood a “stimulus” followed by an “important consequence” rather than the meaning intrinsic to a word.“Our claim is to say that a dog understands a word, it means in the absence of the object, the dog activates a so-called mental representation,” Boros said. “We can imagine it as the memory for that object.

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