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This Is What Happens in Your Dogs’ Brain When You Talk to Them

Do dogs understand us?


People who have dogs are pretty sure their dogs understand the difference between human words, like “walk” versus “treat.” But there hasn’t been a lot of evidence to prove it, and in a new study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers from Emory University went straight to the source to do so.They trained 12 very good boys to retrieve two differently named objects, and then looked at the dogs’ brain activity using fMRI. One of the objects given to the dogs was soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other had a different texture, to help them associate them with different words. The dogs were trained to fetch one of the objects when it was asked for, and then rewarded with food or praise. To compare, they also said strange “pseudowords” that the dogs had never heard before, and compared the neural activity.The dogs lay in an fMRI scanner and their owners stood in front of them, said the name of the toys, and then showed the dog each toy. “Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for instance, heard his owner say the words ‘Piggy’ or ‘Monkey,’ then his owner held up the matching toy,” a release says. “As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as ‘bobbu’ and ‘bodmick,’ then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.”A bit surprisingly, large parts of the dogs’ brains, from the primary auditory region to an area called parietal cortex, were more active when the dogs heard words they’d never heard before. In humans, this is usually the opposite: we react more strongly to words we know.“We think this suggests that the dogs were trying to figure out what the novel words meant,” Gregory Berns senior study author and neuroscientist at Emory University, tells me. “Unlike humans, who can tell immediately that they mean nothing.” It may also reveal that they’re trying harder to understand to please their owners, or receive food or praise.The results overall suggest that dogs do show differences in their brains for words they have been taught, though more study with more breeds needs to be done. But the best way to teach dogs to understand us, Berns says, is to combine visual and smell cues, rather than words alone. They’ve seen that reward centers in the dogs’ brains responded faster this way.“So although [dogs] can learn some things about human words, other modalities may actually be more efficient from the dog’s perspective,” he says. The study is the first to train dogs to go into an fMRI scanner, and voluntarily remain motionless—without sedation or restraint.Berns, is also the founder of the Dog Project which is asking questions about the evolution of dogs. “Studies by the Dog Project have furthered understanding of dogs’ neural response to expected reward, identified specialized areas in the dog brain for processing faces, demonstrated olfactory responses to human and dog odors, and linked prefrontal function to inhibitory control,” a press release says.Recently, another study questioned if we’ve been overreaching when it comes to dogs’ cognitive abilities, letting our love for them skew what we study and why.

When I asked Berns about this, he agrees that dogs are probably not particularly special in terms of cognitive abilities or understanding our words. But what is special is their social relationship to us, he tells me. “You cannot teach an animal who is so afraid of humans they run away,” he says. “An animal must be comfortable around humans before you can expect them to pay attention to our words. Very few animals will do that.”
Source – Vice

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