Pet Dogs Can Tell Their Owner’s Language Apart From Foreign Ones!

Surprising research findings may help decode a human-canine bond going back millennia.

Jan 31, 2022
Pet Dogs Can Tell Their Owner’s Language Apart From Foreign Ones! | Surprising research findings may help decode a human-canine bond going back millennia.

The easy intuition, responsiveness to cues,  and empathy for humans that many dog owners instinctively sense they are getting from their pets may have just received some scientific backing. This comes in the surprising finding that dogs can tell their owner’s language apart from a foreign language and from gibberish too!

And there’s a cute backstory. When Mexican scientist of ethology or the evolution of animal behavior , Laura Cuaya, moved to Hungary for her postdoctoral studies at the  Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, she brought her beloved border collie, Kun-kun, along for the ride.

Cuaya couldn’t help noticing how locals warmed to dogs. This prompted her naturally curious scientific mind to start asking questions. “Here people are really friendly with dogs, so they are talking all the time to Kun-kun, but I always wondered if he can detect that it’s a different language,” CNN quotes her as saying. Would Kun-kun recognize that people in Budapest spoke Hungarian, not Spanish?

So Kun-kun’s intrepid owner set out to find an answer through a scientific study, published this month in the journal Neurolmage .

This experiment involved reading a children’s classic to pooches!
Cuaya and her colleagues decided to use brain images derived from MRI scanning to shed light on her hunch. They worked with dogs of various ages that had, until the experiment, only heard their owners speak just one of the two languages, Spanish or Hungarian.  

As they explained about their notion in the introduction to their study: “We hypothesized that if dogs can extract auditory regularities of speech, and of a familiar language, then there will be distinct patterns of brain activity for natural speech vs. scrambled speech, and also for familiar vs. unfamiliar language.”

Not surprisingly, getting the dogs to happily take part in the experiment took some creative coaxing and animal training!  The researchers first needed to teach Kun-kun and her 17 fellow participating pooches including a labradoodle, a golden retriever and Australian shepherds, to lay motionless in a  brain scanner. Their pet parents were always present, and they could leave the scanner at any point.

Once this had been accomplished, as US News reveals, the research team played the animals excerpts of children’s book classic The Little Prince in both Spanish and Hungarian while scanning their brains with an MRI machine. They were looking for evidence that their brains reacted differently to a familiar and unfamiliar language.

The researchers also played scrambled versions of the story to find out if dogs could differentiate between speech and non-speech.

The results are groundbreaking
The images reveal that dogs' brains show different patterns of activity for an unfamiliar language than for a familiar one — the first time anyone has demonstrated, researchers say, that a non-human brain can differentiate between two languages. This means that the sounds and rhythms of a familiar language are accessible to non-humans.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, the team found that the two languages triggered different activity patterns in the secondary auditory cortex,  the part of the brain that processes complex sounds.

As the researchers themselves explain: “In conclusion, we showed that the dog brain has the capacity to detect speech naturalness and distinguish between languages, and we demonstrated that these processes are supported by different cortical regions.”

As far as comprehending that the scrambled words were a non-language and not authentic speech,  study co-author Raúl Hernández-Pérez, as quoted in HealthDay News, suggests that the mechanism behind this understanding differed to speech sensitivity in humans.  

He explains that  “whereas human brains are specially tuned to speech, dog brains may simply detect the naturalness of the sound." The researchers believe that the primary auditory cortex in the brains of the dogs is the site of this response.

Interestingly, the team also found that the brains of older dogs were more skilled at detecting speech “suggesting a role for the amount of language exposure.” For Cuaya, speaking to CNN, dogs are social beings and continuously picking up information about their social world, so humans are an important source of information.

They suggest that dogs have refined their ability to distinguish between human languages over the millennia-long process of domestication. This is because it depended on canines following spoken human commands, making them motivated to listen carefully!

Life’s a Hoot for More Animals, Study Finds
Dogs May Sense Human Intention!
Now There’s TV Just For Dogs!

Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.