"Sit! Lie down! High-five! Take the bus." A well trained dog can understand what her owner wants her to do. According to a new study, humans can also understand when dogs talk back. Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest found that people can pick up on what canines are trying to communicate when they growl—with women being particularly fluent in dog.
The researchers first recorded 18 dogs growling in response to several different situations: while guarding food from other dogs, playing tug-of-war with humans, and being threatened by the approach of a stranger.
Forty participants were then recruited to listen to two sets of the recordings, each set including two growls from each situation. Using a sliding-scale, participants rated each growl in the first set based on levels of perceived fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness. For the second set, each participant tried to determine the context of the growl (guarding food from other dogs, playing tug-of-war with humans, and being threatened by the approach of a stranger).
When it came to the growls recorded in the playful contexts, the participants recognized that they were low in aggression and "significantly higher on playfulness and happiness and lower on despair and fearfulness." Both the growls recorded in the two aggressive situations where ranked highest in aggression.
The humans were additionally able to correctly identify the context of the growls significantly above chance. Overall, they had a 63 percent success rate (versus a chance level of 33 percent).
The study is one of the first to show humans can differentiate between canine growls and previous studies have shown that humans can understand barks. "We know relatively little about the vocal communication system of dogs, and the most studied vocalization (not surprisingly) are the different barks," Tamás Faragó, the lead author of the study told Broadly.
Women are likely more empathic and sensitive to others' emotions and this helps them to better associate the contexts with the emotional content of the growls.
"Our recent fMRI studies suggest that dogs and humans use similar brain areas and probably similar processes to assess others' emotions from vocalizations. It seems that there are biologically rooted rules to how mammalian vocalizations encode emotions and these shared processes help humans to assess the emotional load of not just dogs but other mammal species' vocal emotion expressions."
The study also found that dog owners performed better at the tasks than participants who didn't have dogs. And interestingly, women did better than men. Do women have a deep, spiritual connection with dogs that men just don't have?
"This is a common pattern in emotion recognition studies," Faragó explained. "Women are likely more empathic and sensitive to others' emotions and this helps them to better associate the contexts with the emotional content of the growls."