When we make a road trip to visit my parents, Brodie always comes along for the ride. My mom and dad talk to my crazy border collie mix both in Italian and heavily accented English. "Sit" becomes "sitta" and they often ask him to "givva me your paw."
Brodie looks at them intently and certainly appears to understand everything they say. It probably helps that they're bribing him with homemade bread, but a new study finds that dogs understand human language better than we thought. Researchers found that dogs can understand when someone new is talking or when they hear a different word. The results were published in the journal Biology Letters.
For the study, researchers from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom filmed 70 dogs of different breeds while they sat next to their owners, according to Science. They played audio recordings of men and women who the dogs had never heard speak before, and they used words that sounded very similar such as "had," "hid" and "who'd."
The words were chosen because they didn't sound anything like common commands that the dogs were likely to have heard at home or during normal training.
More than a human thing
After listening to the recordings just one time, 48 of the dogs reacted either when a different speaker said the same word or when the same speaker said a different word, New Scientist reports. The other dogs didn't respond in a noticeable way or were distracted.
Researchers looked for reactions like the dog's ears moving forward, changing eye contact or shifting toward the speaker whenever they heard a change in a word or a speaker, as shown in the video above. They also noted how long the dogs paid attention. When they kept hearing the same word repeated over and over, their attention dropped.
"Until now, the spontaneous ability to recognize vowel sounds when spoken by different people was considered to be uniquely human," lead researcher Holly Root-Gutteridge told the Press Association. "This research shows that, despite previous assumptions, this spontaneous ability is not uniquely human and that dogs share this linguistic talent, suggesting that speech perception may not be as special to humans as we previously thought.”
Researchers think the ability might be due to domestication, as dogs who are the most attentive to humans are the ones most likely to be used for breeding.
"I was surprised by how well some of the dogs responded to unfamiliar voices," Root-Gutteridge told New Scientist. "It might mean that they comprehend more than we give them credit for."