Dogs. As Smart As We Think They Are

New Studies Highlight the Complexity of Canines’ Attention to Language

By Erik Ryken

dogs as smart as we think they are

Have you ever tried fooling a dog into getting excited for the wrong thing? Perhaps testing their instincts by offering something boring to the tune of a tasty treat? It turns out that while they may very well be excited by the amped out sound of your voice, they are most likely on to your trick.

The Family Dog Project, at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, recently publicized their finding that – just like humans – dogs process word meanings in their left hemisphere and they process intonation in their right hemisphere.


Family Dog Project

In essence, this means that if we try to offer a pooch something unfamiliar from the fridge by using the same tone of voice as we would for a known treat, they will recognize the deception. We won’t be fooling them with a little piece of broccoli, no matter how excited we are about its nutritional benefits. It just won’t offer the same excitement as a strip of bacon or a slice of sausage.

Similarly, the effects of our tone of voice have proven to be more rewarding than food, in another study by The Dog Project at Emory University

So, does this mean dogs can read our thoughts? Not exactly. It does prove that they are more adept at interpreting speech than is often believed. As for science, the discovery that dogs and humans have similar neurological responses to language offers new potential insights into human cognition.

The primary goal of the Family Dog Project is specifically to research human-dog relationships through cognitive and behavioral studies with an interest in how this long-standing bond has shaped our dogs and our selves.

The technology used in each of these studies is MRI brain scanning. One feature of this method is the requirement that the research participant be patient enough to rest briefly in the confines of a scanning bed for about 30 minutes. Not all pups are thrilled about this, understandably, so dogs are selected based on their willingness to hold a down position for this length of time.

For those interested,watch how dogs are trained to sit through these studies without sedation or restraints: