How to Interpret Woof

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I recently stumbled upon an article that explained the results of a new, comparative neuroimaging study between dogs and human. This study investigated how dogs interpret vocal tones, as compared to humans. I immediately became intrigued because 1. I love dogs and my family has two golden retrievers and 2. When I come home after being at school for four months, they seem to greet me as enthusiastically as I greet them. I would like to think that it is because they missed me and are happy to see me, but that was always speculation on my part.

This study is one of the first studies to used comparative neuroimaging between a non-primate species and humans. Dogs and humans have shared similar environments for quite a long time now, but their most recent common ancestor existed 90-100 million years ago (Springer et al, 2003). These two factors gave the researchers the idea that dogs may be able to understand vocal cues given by humans or other dogs, and thus they began their investigation. In the experiment, both dogs and human participants were placed in an fMRI and listened to human vocalizations, dog vocalizations, nonvocal environmental sounds, and a silent baseline. The researchers wanted to identify if dogs had brain areas that would respond to certain vocal noises and if they process these noises the same ways that humans do. They found that dogs did have an area in the brain that responded to vocalizations, in the persylvian regions of the brain, and that dogs also had a brain region that responded to positive emotional valence vocalizations. Both dogs and human showed brain activity when listening to a positive vocalization from the other, but more activity was shown when listening to a member of their own species. They also found more activity in the right hemisphere of the dogs than in the left.

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Image from the study of the identified auditory regions in dogs and humans. These are the regions that responded strongest to the vocal cues.

So, can dogs understand when we’re happy to see them after a long time away? Or maybe when we’re scolding them if they have done something wrong? This study gives valuable insight into the idea that non-primate animals can understand and process emotional vocal cues, although more research needs to be conducted to fully understand how/if this happens in the way that these results suggest. If dogs are able to understand when we’re happy with them or mad at them, does this mean that they are capable of mediating their actions via thought processes following a vocal cue from an owner? The answer to this question may not found anytime soon, but it an interesting idea. In terms of returning home from school, maybe the happiness seen in my dogs is in response to the happiness in my own voice.

The article is titled “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain are Revealed by Comparative fMRI” and was conducted by Attila Andics, Márta Gácsi, Tamás Faragó, Anna Kis, and Ádám Miklóski and is published in the Volume 24, Issue 5 of Current Biology, on March 3, 2014.

References:

  • M.S. Springer, W.J. Murphy, E. Eizirik, S.J. O’Brien. (2003). Placental mammal diversification and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 100, pp. 1056–1061.
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