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Does Your Dog Understand Human Speech?

Your dog is pretty smart. Her ears perk up when you ask her if she’s ready for dinner, and you find yourself spelling out words for fear that she’ll hear you and go into a frenzy (W-A-L-K, anyone?). But how well can your pup actually understand your speech?

Puppy and Human Language Processing
As most dog owners can tell you, canines really do seem to process language and respond accordingly. Though it’s unlikely that Fido is fluent in human speech, modern research suggests that he is able to distinguish human speech from an array of other sounds.

A 2014 study done at Eotvos University in Budapest measured the brain activity of 22 humans and 11 dogs in response to recordings of 200 different noises—car sounds, whistles, human voices, etc. The scientists’ findings suggested that vocal cues light up a similar auditory region in the brains of pups and people alike.

A doctoral candidate and a researcher at the University of Sussex did some doggy-whispering of their own to make sense of the canine hearing process. Their findings show common points between human and dog language processing.

The Findings
We two-legged types figure out different kinds of auditory content using different sides of our brains. And we’re better at hearing given types of information from the ear opposite the side of the brain that works out those details.

Most folks show a right-ear advantage when they listen to the actual words and phrases of speech. The right ear links to the left side of the brain. The left ear, which links to the right side of the brain, better distinguishes emotional content of speech.

So it goes for your dog. He listens with his right or left ear depending on the type of speech being heard. The Sussex folks played examples of human speech ranging from monotone, content-heavy lecturing to emotionally driven exclamations. Sure enough, dogs turned to listen in a pattern that mimicked human hearing.

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So, Is My Dog Fluent In English?
Dogs can pick up a basic vocabulary. They learn through repetition that “walk” means going out on a leash to bark at squirrels and “dinner” means delicious food in their bowl. With training, they can expand that vocabulary to include a bunch of new situations. Verbal cues do work.

And while you probably can’t expect your dog to understand a lecture on the philosophy of Plato or the modern political climate—dogs are about on par with a 2-year-old human in their language fluency— he’s definitely able to pick up on some of what you say.

They can both distinguish human speech from other sounds and identify the purpose of different speech types. Science is telling us what every owner already knows: dogs really do understand us.

Communicating With Your Pooch
Use your dog’s abilities to build a better relationship. Matching vocal intonation to training commands can make it easier for him to follow your directions. As with a child, short and simple phrases, along with plenty of demonstration, makes the learning curve a lot easier to master.

And be careful how you speak around him. If he ever learns to talk, you want to know that he’s got only good things to say about you.


Holly Zynda

Holly Zynda is a copy editor, proofreader, and writer with a lifelong passion for the written word. Over the course of her career, she has worked on an array of content for individuals and major companies, including GoPro, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Reputation.com. She also maintains a thriving editing and publishing business, Owl Intermedia. When not working, Holly is an avid amateur photographer, serving as a contributor to Shutterstock and holding dozens of awards on ViewBug. Holly also contributes her free time to environmental protection, animal welfare, and humanist causes.

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