by Wonyoung Lee, ‘22
Why do our dogs seem to understand when we ask them to go to the park, but not seem to understand when we tell them to leave the toilet paper alone? To what extent do our dogs understand what we say? A study conducted by five scholars examines this.
In this study, twelve dogs were trained to recognize and fetch or select an object when the owners said cues such as “‘go get [object]’ or ‘where is [object]?’ or ‘[object]!’” The two objects differed in texture or the noise they made. One of the objects was something similar to a stuffed animal, having a soft texture, while the other had a different texture such as rubber or made squeaking noises. The owners trained their dogs at home for approximately 10 minutes per day for 2 to 6 months along with the biweekly practices at a dog training facility. The dogs were able to distinguish the two objects from other random objects and could retrieve it when the owner said to. The object that each dog preferred was labeled as object 1 for convenience and precision.
For analysis, this experiment used Functional MRI (fMRI), a technology that allows researchers to measure the brain activity through changes in blood flow while a participant is engaging in an activity. Generally, when there is more blood flow towards one region, which indicates that the brain region is activated. Soon after the day that the object identification criterion was met, the dogs were brought to the lab. There the dogs were scanned through fMRI while they were awake and unrestrained. The experiment had dogs that already completed fMRI experiment training and participated in previous fMRI experiments so that they lied still as the owner vocalized the two objects’ names amongst other random novel words. Their brain activities were scanned during this process.
The results showed that there was greater activation in the dogs’ brains, specifically a region called parietotemporal cortex that performs word analysis in human brains, when they were shown a novel object compared to the trained object. This suggests that dogs are able to detect novelty in auditory information from human speech. The reasons are yet to be known. It is speculated to either be the difference in frequency of presentation that allowed dogs to detect the “oddballs” or the lack of meaning such as rewards associated with the novel objects and words.
Although further research is needed for more solidified conclusions to be made, it seems that dogs are able to pick up repeated words from a long array of random other noises. So, the next time you leave the house, why don’t you try emphasizing certain words like “toilet paper” or “mayonnaise” and reward them for their good work afterwards?
1. István P. Ötven év múlva a kutyák beszélni fognak, és ez nem vicc. Népszabadság Online [Internet]. 2016 Aug 30 [cited 2018 Oct 28]; Available from: http://nol.hu/tud-tech/kutya-beszed-viselkedes-agy-tudomany-etologia-1629791
2. Prichard A., Cook P.F., Spivak M., Chhibber R., and Berns G.S. Awake fMRI Reveals Brain Regions for Novel Word Detection in Dogs. Frontiers [Internet]; 2018 [cited 2018 Oct 28]; DOI:10.3389/fnins.2018.00737