Researchers in Hungary have found evidence that dogs do process and, to a certain extent, understand human speech. Using brain scanning technology, the researchers determined that the right parts of canine brains process words and the left parts process pitch, the same way that human brains work. And the study confirms what any dog person already knows: dogs react to the particular combination of speech and pitch.
One interesting aspect of the study is that is provides some insight into how animal brains react to human speech. That’s hard to test, because most animals try to avoid humans and have no interest in listening to humans yammer on or trying to understand what we’re talking about. Our canine friends, on the other hand, have been connected with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to welcome, and provide, companionship for humans. They basically have to care what the humans in their lives are saying to them, so they pay attention when other animals just ignore our blather.
I have no doubt that Kasey understands some of what we say. When we speak to her, her ears perk up, her head tilts a bit, and her tail starts wagging if the message is a happy one. Of course, we don’t try to discuss the fine points of philosophy or quantum theory with her, but her limited vocabulary is quite sufficient to cover the basics of her existence. I’d guess her working vocabulary consists of about ten words, all typically spoken in the same way with exaggerated tones and grouped into five functional life categories that allow her to live a pretty happy dog life:
- Self-awareness: Kasey
- Eating: food, breakfast, dinner, hungry
- Basic discipline and interaction: Good girl!, Bad girl!, No!
- Fun: Walk
- Sleep: Bed
As I type this, I realize that I have probably never said “yes” to Kasey or, for that matter, any other dog. Fortunately, they aren’t craving positive reinforcement. They’re just happy to hang out with us.