How Dogs Interpret Speech

Dogs tend to turn to the left when they hear emotional speech-like sounds, and right when they hear verbal commands from a robot.

Dec 2, 2014
Jef Akst

WIKIMEDIA, ILDAR SAGDEJEVUsing head movements to extrapolate which half of the brain dogs use to interpret verbal input, researchers have uncovered evidence that man’s best friend may show similar patterns of processing human speech as their owners do, according to a study published last week (November 26) in Current Biology.

When presented with a monotone, robotic voice speaking the familiar command “to come” from speakers on both sides of the dogs’ heads, the animals tended to turn to the right, suggesting their left hemispheres were at work. Upon hearing meaningless jibber-jabber chock-full of emotion, the dogs tended to turn to the left, indicating use of their right hemispheres. In humans, the left hemisphere is generally associated with speech processing, while the right is associated with picking up emotional cues, though both hemispheres play a role in different stages of speech interpretation.

The study also suggested that dogs key into the meaning of words, not just the inflection with which humans say them, Attila Andics, a neurobiologist at the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, told NPR’s Shots. “[The] dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences.”

Recent research has also suggested that dogs—unlike most other animals, including chimps—can understand the intentions behind human pointing.