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Do Dogs Understand The Words Humans Say?

Photo: Alvan Nee on Unsplash
Do Dogs Understand The Words Humans Say?

It's something every single dog owner has done at some point or another.

It's time for your dog to take a bath, or to get in the car to go the vet. Your usually well-trained and well-behaved pup won't budge, no matter firmly you call him to you.

So what do you do? You coo at him: "Come on your big jerk, it's time to go the ve-eeh-et!"

After all, they're just dogs, so, of course the specific words you say don't actually matter as much as the way you say them, right? You could call your dog fart face and if you did it in a voice dripping sweetness he would still look at you like you hung the moon.

Well the news is in, jerks, and it isn't good for those of you who thought (and spoke) that way.

According to a study published in the journal Science, our dogs understand more of what we're saying than we ever realized before.

RELATED: Dogs Are Basically Humans, Says Best Study Ever

The researchers studied is group of dogs that were trained to stay completely still while inside of an fMRI machine. While inside, their brains were scanned as the scientists spoke a series of words in different intonations.

(Let us pause here to acknowledge how impossible it would be to make most of our dogs just chill out in an MRI. I know that I, for one, would have to stuff mine with Milkbones until he probably wouldn't even fit in the tube anymore.)

The researchers performing the study monitored the dog's brain activity and found that they process the meaning of the words in a manner similar to the way humans do.

Just as human listeners can distinguish between lexical cues (the actual word being said) and intonational cues (the tone in which we say it) "to arrive at a unified representation of communicative content," our pups are also able to understand specific words we say, no matter how we say them.

While watching to see which hemisphere of the dogs' brains were activated as they heard specific words, the researchers "found a hemispheric bias for processing meaningful words, independently of intonation; an auditory brain region for distinguishing intonationally marked and unmarked words; and increased activity in primary reward regions only when both lexical and intonational information were consistent with praise."

Basically, you might think you can fool your dog by saying, "Let's go take a bath" in a sugary, sweet voice, but Fido knows exactly what the word "bath" means, thank you very much.

This works the other way around, too.

Saying words the researchers deemed as neutral — like "if" and "then" — in a chipper voice doesn't have the same pleasing effect as saying something familiar like, "Who's the best boy?"

“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,” said study co-author Attila Andics. “So dogs 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.”

I swear that my dog can understand everything I'm saying, so to me, this is in no way surprising.

That said, I also fully believe that I know when my cat's angry with me, so my tendency to anthropomorphize animals does make a little bit ... how do we say ... biased.

But what this means in regard to how we relate to our dogs is sort of mind-blowing.

It means not only that our dogs are smarter than many of us previously thought, but also that they are so loyal we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Now get off of your computer or smartphone, go cuddle the patient pup in your life and tell them who's the very best pupper in the whole wide world. They'll understand.

RELATED: This Is How Your Dog Really Feels About You, According To Science

Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Batman. For more of her work, check out her Tumblr.

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted on September 11, 2016 and was updated with the latest information.

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