Do Dogs Listen to Our Words or Voice Tone?

Evidence of hemispheric specialization in domestic dogs

Posted Mar 05, 2015

Growing up I had been told that dogs respond to our voice tone but don’t understand words. This meant that I should talk to my dog in a firm voice or praising one and that the content of my words didn’t matter. Not only does this appear to be incorrect, dogs really do understand words (Coren, 1994). Furthermore, recent research indicates that domestic dogs actually show hemispheric specialization when processing speech—just like we do!

In a fascinating experiment, Ratcliffe and Reby (2014) used the head orienting design to measure dogs’ attention to speech or intonation. Dogs were led between two speakers and exposed to 10 conditions of speech and/or intonation. Using a synthesizer, human speech was altered so that dogs heard only emotional content. In other conditions, dogs were exposed to words only without intonation. It was found that domestic dogs turned their heads to the left when sounds contained no words but had a positive intonation, indicating right hemispheric processing. Conversely, dogs turned their heads to the right when attending to familiar verbal commands in their own human language but not a foreign language which indicates left hemispheric specialization.

This study demonstrates that dogs attend to both speech and the emotional content of human speech. It also indicates that they process speech, meaning, and emotional content in a manner similar to humans. The authors interpret this as evidence of our common evolution.  Dogs are smarter than we give them credit for and they are similar to us. While I find this study fascinating, I hope the authors will have an opportunity to replicate their research with brain scan technology providing an actual image of the dog brain in action. To see a very good video abstract of this fascinating research with more detail follow this link

Coren, S. 1994. The Intelligence of Dogs. New York: Fress Press.