Dogs Process Speech the Same Way as Humans

New research suggests that dogs understand the content of our words and not just the form.

Nov 29 2014, 12:30pm

The author's dog, Harley.​Image: ​Abby Logsdon

​Humans decipher language using ​opposing hemispheres of the brain. On the left side, which is usually the language-dominant side, we process sounds into words and syntax. On the right, we evaluate things like tone of voice and inflection; this is where context is sorted. We need both of these regions to talk and listen.

Most higher animals—animals above a worm or thereabouts—have hemispheric brains, including dogs. What dogs do with those left and right hemispheres is less certain, but ​a new paper in the journal Current Biology describes an series of experiments suggesting that dogs handle language in way similar to humans.

This is to say that different speech processing tasks are delegated to different halves of dog brains. The revelation doesn't suggest that dogs are secret geniuses, but it does indicate that they are attuned to what we say and not just how we say it.

"A left-hemispheric bias was shown for meaningful phonemic cues," the authors write, and "salient intonational and speaker-related cues produced a right-hemispheric bias."

That's pretty cool, but in my own research, conducted with help from Test Subject A (above), the difference in responses to speech compared with other, non-verbal things—the rustling of a bag of treats, the putting on of tennis shoes, the can opener—is pretty huge. So, I'm not too worried that Test Subject A is about to start talking anytime soon, which is good because that would be awkward.