Does your dog always seem to perk up whenever you speak? Well, according to new research out of the University of Sussex, it would seem that our canine companions really do hang on our every word. Not only are they tuned in to subtleties of human speech, but they process human language in some of the same ways we do, reports University of Sussex News.
Researchers Victoria Ratcliffe and Dr. David Reby tested more than 250 dogs to see how they responded to spoken commands of different varieties. They found that when dogs listen to human speech, they tilt their heads to the right or the left depending on the type of speech, indicating that they have a hemispheric bias for processing different kinds of spoken communication.
For instance, when sound was primarily being processed in the right side of the dog’s brain, the animal favored the left ear. If the dog tilted the right ear forward, the information was being processed in the left side of the brain. Interestingly, the kinds of speech that the dogs processed in one hemisphere or the other worked in a similar fashion to how humans process speech.
"Humans mainly use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the verbal content of speech and the right hemisphere to process the characteristics of the voice — whether it’s familiar, male or female — and its emotional content," explained Ratcliffe. "Previous studies have shown that other mammals also have hemispheric biases when processing their own species’ vocalizations, but no one had ever looked at whether biases existed in domesticated animals in response to the different components of human speech."
The results of the study showed that the dogs, like people, favored left-hemisphere processing when attempting to comprehend the meaning of particular words or commands. But when the speech was attenuated in an emotional way familiar to the dogs, they would favor right-hemisphere processing.
"Although we cannot say to what extent they understand the complexity of the verbal content, our study does suggest that dogs pay attention to this information in human speech and that they perceive its content in a way that broadly parallels human perception," said Radcliffe.
In other words, if you're the type of dog owner who speaks to your pet like a person, rest assured: your dog really is listening. Though it may not understand every word, it really is trying, and is genuinely riveted by your speech.