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Tag: communicating

It’s what you say AND how you say it

enik kubinyi

Traditional wisdom holds that it’s not so much what you say to your dog as how you say it that counts — that tone, in other words, is everything.

But scientists in Hungary say dogs may understand more words than we think — and that it takes a combination of positive words and a positive tone for their brains to register a pleasurable reaction.

“Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.

MRI readings conducted in the study showed the right hemisphere of dogs’ brains react to intonation, while the left hemisphere reacts to the meaning of words — as is the case with humans.

Their paper was published in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

The researchers — using words, positive tones and plenty of treats, we’d imagine — trained dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging machine and lie still while the machine recorded their brain activity.

The methods, similar to those being used at Emory University, are allowing scientists to better understand what goes on in the canine brain.

enik kubinyi2A trainer spoke common words of praise used by dog owners, including the Hungarian words for “good boy,” “super” and “well done,” as well as neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.”

All the words were spoken using both positive tones and neutral tones, according to the New York Times.

Only words of praise spoken in a positive tone provoked significant reactions, making the reward centers in a dog’s brain light up.

The researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest recruited 13 family dogs for the study, and trained them to sit totally still for seven minutes in an fMRI scanner. The dogs were not restrained, and “could leave the scanner at any time,” the authors said.

Using the brain activity images, the researchers saw that the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans. Tone, on the other hand, was analyzed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere.

Using neutral words in a positive tone, or positive words in a neutral tone, produced little reaction — or at least not one that shows up in MRI machines.

“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,” Andics said. “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.”

(Photos by Enik Kubinya, via New York Times)