Dogs can not only understand what we say, but also our tone, according to study

Source: AP
Source: AP

Hungarian scientists say your dog knows better than to trust that bogus happy tone you use for bad news, according to a new study.

Scientists, led by researcher Attila Andics from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, found that dogs, like humans, can differentiate between the way humans say words and what they actually mean. So if you call your dog a good boy, but your tone doesn't match the words, he's going to know you're being dishonest.

The study shows "that dogs not only separate what we say from how we say it, but also that they can combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant," Andics said, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Canine test subjects waiting by the fMRI machine
Source: 
AAAS

Andics' team trained 13 family pets to sit still inside an fMRI machine and listen to recordings of their trainers' voices. The recordings involved both praise and neutral language. While the recordings played, researchers paid attention to the dogs' brain regions, to see if the dogs were able to differentiate between not only the meaningful and meaningless words, but between praising and non-praising tones.

The study found that, when dogs receive praise, it activates the reward center of the brain — the same area that gets activated by food, sex, being pet and nice music. That reward center was only active when the dog heard praise in an earnest tone. Further, the study showed that dogs, like humans, use the left and right sides of their brain to interpret speech; the left hemisphere processes meaningful words, while the right side differentiates real and fake praise.

Study patients getting ready for testing
Source: 
AAAS

"It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match," Andics said in a statement. "So dogs can not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant. Again, this is very similar to what human brains do."

So the next time you're talking to your dog, be straight with them. Because "Who wants to go to the vet?" is bad news, regardless of how you say it.

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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