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Although dogs cannot drive cars, they may be able to understand parts of our speech

A new study published in the journal Cell, by Victoria Ratcliffe and David Reby, should lend some relief to dog owners who enjoy talking with their pets. The new research indicates that if you are one of them: you’re probably not as crazy as your friends sometimes like to joke about.

The study found that dogs actually interpret human speech in much the same way you or I do: by putting sounds together into coherent words (so interpretation based on meaning) using the left hemisphere, and figuring out the emotions and gender of the speaker using the right hemisphere. This did this by playing sound clips that varied in terms of content and sound, evaluating the dogs’ responses based on which direction their heads turned when responding to the recorded messages.

The study “found that dogs showed a significant LH bias when presented with a familiar spoken command in which the salience of meaningful phonemic (segmental) cues was artificially increased but a significant RH bias in response to commands in which the salience of intonational or speaker-related (suprasegmental) vocal cues was increased.” In other words, the study found that the dogs were far more likely to turn left when hearing a familiar cue, but more likely to turn right when the sounds didn’t add up: much like you or I.

This isn’t the biggest surprise, and in fact it’s something most animal lovers have “known” for quite a long time. It provides further evidence for the theory that our animal companions are capable of understanding more than a simple Pavlovian connection between a bell and food. Indeed this new research helps emphasize the difference between cats and dogs when contrasted with a 2013 study from the University of Tokyo, which showed that cats can recognize their owner calling them but simply don’t care.

Although humans have a larger neo-cortex than our animal compatriots, allowing for more dynamic learning, we are not alone in being able to assemble tones into coherent ideas and understanding. Indeed, magpies, crows, and ravens may surpass humans in a dimension of this: they are able to pass on learned visual cues to the next generation through an unknown mechanism. So even though we may be the kings of dynamic and abstract learning, we certainly aren’t the only species capable of conscious interaction with the world.

How much, and to what degree, our animal companions can understand us remains to be seen. Certainly, an increasing volume of research indicates that they understand more than many of us give them credit for.