Do you believe your dog understands exactly what you mean when you tell him “I love you” 15 times per day? It transpires that dogs may comprehend more than humans have traditionally given them credit for.
A study conducted by researchers at Emory University used brain imaging to show how canine companions process words they have been taught to associate with objects. Twelve dogs were trained by their owners to distinguish two different objects, a stuffed animal and a rubber, based on their names. Training consisted of instructing dogs to retrieve one of the objects and rewarding them with food or praise. Once a dog was able to discriminate between two objects by fetching consistently the one requested by the owner, training was considered complete.
Experiments consisted of measuring and mapping the brain activity of dogs when their owners said familiar names of toys and show the corresponding object. Results confirmed greater activation in auditory regions of the brain to the novel words compared to the trained ones. Surprisingly, the results are opposite to that of research on humans, which shows greater neural activation for known words than novel ones. Scientists hypothesise that the observation can be explained by the fact that dogs understand their owner wants them to learn the new word and, consequently, they try to do so.
In half of the dogs tested, an increased activation for the novel words was witnessed in their parietotemporal cortex, where the lexical differences are processed. The remaining half showed intensified activation in other brain regions (left temporal cortex and amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus). Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns says “Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words […] but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.” A recent study also argued that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and scent cues than to verbal ones. This last conclusion is useful when it comes to teaching dogs new tricks.
Islam, Consultant, Leyton France
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