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Is it possible for a dog to understand what people are saying?

Bone Broth For Dogs

Dogs can’t talk back. But they do have one thing that gives them an advantage when communicating with humans — the ability to sense sound waves and interpret vocal cues from their owners’ mouths and bodies. Dogs use these abilities to communicate with other animals as well as humans. They also help us predict what our pets might be trying to say by interpreting subtle body movements or changes in voice tone. And scientists think we may someday give dogs artificial ears that allow them to hear human voices even without any special skills.

In this article, you’ll learn how dogs perceive and respond to sounds in order to better understand language and communication between humans and their pets. You will also explore some of the implications of these findings for future research into whether dogs could eventually understand spoken words.

So let’s start with hearing basics first. Can dogs actually hear what we’re saying? How much do they really listen? Keep reading to find out.

If your pet has been accused of being “clumsy,” “stupid” or just plain oblivious, then he may not be paying attention to all the things that you want him to pay attention to, including verbal directions. Researchers at Cornell University recently found that deaf cats, who were raised alongside sighted kittens but had no access to sign language, learned to open doors only after watching a person perform door opening behaviors. So if you’ve ever had to repeat yourself because your cat was too busy chasing his tail (or perhaps thinking about napping) to notice your request to get something off the counter, consider yourself lucky. At least your feline friend doesn’t need to rely on facial expressions or body posture clues to figure out what you mean.

Can Dogs Hear Sounds and Voices?

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly which parts of the mammalian brain process auditory information, but there are two general theories on the subject. The most widely accepted theory states that higher centers in the brain process sensory data while lower centers analyze those signals. This means that although the ear sends electrical impulses to the brain through hair cells inside the outer ear canal, the actual processing happens in the central nervous system (the part of the brain containing neurons).

According to the second theory, however, the entire brain processes incoming stimuli. In this case, all the ear needs to do is send audio information to the brain via nerve fibers running along side hairs called cochlea within the inner ear. Scientists don’t know which theory is correct yet, but either way, once the signal reaches the brain, the auditory cortex analyzes it. If researchers determine that the area responsible for analyzing visual input is located near the center of the brain, then it stands to reason that the same region would handle auditory information. This would explain why blindfolded subjects show similar responses as those seen during electroencephalograms (EEGs), where electrodes placed around the head pick up small fluctuations in voltage caused by neural activity [source American Speech-Language-Hearing Association].

Now that we know that dogs’ brains function similarly to ours, let’s look next at the ways in which both species perceive and react to different noises.

Humans make more than 2 million utterances per day, each with its own characteristic pitch and volume level. Humans tend to speak louder when speaking to children, softly when conversing with friends and loudly when addressing others. According to studies conducted by psychologist David Thorley-BFML, the average male speaks twice as loud as the average female and uses 80 percent more dynamic range, which refers to the difference between quietest and loudest tones heard over a short period of time [Source: Thorley-BFML].

While listening to music, women tend to increase tempo slightly faster than men, creating a slight rise in frequency. Men generally keep tempo steady throughout songs whereas women often slow down toward the end. Pitch levels change slightly depending upon sex as well. Women typically raise pitch slightly, especially during singing, and sometimes decrease it before childbirth.

When talking on cell phones, males tend to shift frequencies upward, while females drop them slightly. These changes occur regardless of age or experience using mobile phones. We’ve known since the 1920s that people naturally adjust their vocal patterns according to surrounding noise. What scientists didn’t realize until relatively recently was that dogs did the exact same thing.

Next, take a closer look at how dogs perceive human speech.

The world’s fastest animal isn’t necessarily the best listener. A 2007 study revealed that trained greyhounds can detect particular vowel sounds, such as /i/and /u/, among other syllables, when presented simultaneously in pairs. However, they couldn’t distinguish consonants, like /b/ versus /d/. Trained poodles performed nearly identically as greyhounds regarding phoneme discrimination, except for /m/versus /n/, which they misidentified eight times out of 10. Poodles seem to lack the ability to discern certain combinations of vowels, consonants and pauses, suggesting that dogs depend primarily on lip movement rather than acoustic analysis to decode speech.

What About Speech-To-Sound Translation Devices?

Although dogs cannot literally understand what you are saying, many believe that they do possess the basic building blocks of comprehension based solely on nonverbal cues. For example, dogs can recognize familiar faces and even mimic specific gestures. Some evidence suggests that they understand simple commands like sit and stay, and that they comprehend complex ones like fetch and heel.

A number of products exist that claim to aid in canine understanding. One product, called Pet IQ, allows users to train their dogs to identify objects by name. When paired with a computer program, the device translates audible names of items like food bowls to corresponding pictures displayed on a monitor screen. Another product, called Doggy Dialer, helps owners call their pets by pressing buttons on a touchpad mounted outside the home. Like Pet IQ, this system features flashing lights that indicate success or failure at recognizing individual command phrases. Both systems require extensive training programs.

Researchers are experimenting with methods of translating human speech directly into physical motion, allowing for full comprehension of spoken languages. An implantable chip developed by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis allows rats to walk across beams on hidden platforms following prerecorded instructions. Dr. Nicolelis plans to test the technique next with rhesus monkeys. Other scientists hope to create implants capable of stimulating nerves in paralyzed patients to control robotic arms.

For now, though, dogs must depend on their innate capacity to decipher human body language. Find out how this works in the next section.

Dr. Nicolelis believes that the rat experiment proves that primates can understand abstract concepts, specifically walking instructions. He says that his team’s method of translating spoken language into action requires less cognitive power than previous approaches, relying instead on motor areas of the cerebral cortex. His critics argue that primates, unlike rodents, lack enough dexterity to move a robotic arm across beams. Furthermore, primate experiments involving implanted chips controlling prosthetic limbs are limited due to ethical concerns.

How Does This Work in Practice?

Our lives revolve largely around the concept of gesture recognition. Gestures serve as symbols representing actions. Without knowing meanings behind common gestures, humans wouldn’t grasp the meaning of sentences or paragraphs. It follows that dogs should exhibit gestural intelligence as well. Just as dogs can recognize individuals by observing gestures, humans likewise assume that dogs can recognize people simply by looking at their heads.

That said, experts disagree on whether or not dogs truly understand human gestures. Studies suggest that dogs do display signs of comprehension when shown pointing gestures. Owners usually attribute this behavior to coincidence rather than true comprehension. On the other hand, researchers at Tufts University published results indicating that dogs could follow human pointing gestures with surprising accuracy and speed.

One researcher reported that her border collie understood pointing gestures made above the waistline, but not below it. She believed that the dog’s apparent inability to follow downward gestures indicated that she lacked awareness of spatial orientation. Yet another report suggested that domestic housecats also understand pointing gestures. Cats looked longer at the object pointed towards than at the object itself, demonstrating that they perceived directionality.

Whether or not dogs truly understand human gestures depends largely on the quality of experimental design used. Because dogs likely evolved as pack hunters, they probably possess the instinctual understanding needed to read human body language. Nevertheless, scientists agree that dogs remain poor mimics compared to chimpanzees, bonobos and wolves. That fact alone indicates that they haven’t attained the advanced levels of social cognition necessary for linguistic abilities.

Why Is This So Important?

Understanding how dogs perceive human speech provides insight into issues related to animal welfare and working relationships between man and beast. By studying canine perception, researchers can develop technologies that allow for improved communication between humans and their four-legged companions.

People already use technology to teach their dogs tricks. But current techniques involve rewarding positive behaviors, rather than punishing undesirable ones. Many trainers avoid punishment altogether, believing that negative reinforcement causes undue stress on animals. Using operant conditioning, which involves reward and punishment schedules, allows dogs to associate desired behaviors with rewards while discouraging unwanted ones. Operant conditioning relies heavily on verbal feedback from the trainer, making it easier for owners to communicate with their pets.

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