It will come as no surprise to dog (or cat) owners that their pets, like babies, are able to understand words, or word combinations, even if spoken in continuous speech. For humans, the ability to learn their mother tongue is innate; ask any English speaking adult learning to speak, for example, Spanish for the first time. There would not be enough hours in the day or days in a week for a baby to learn grammar, syntax or parts of speech……….it comes naturally! The domestication of dogs over many thousands of years may have led to a rapport between our two species enabling canines to pick out syllable patterns after only a few repetitions. Recent research at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, using a combination of brain imaging techniques, has confirmed this ability. “This has never been seen in non-human mammals before” said lead author, Marianna Boros.
An infant will learn to spot new words in a stream of speech even before the word meaning is known. To tell where each word ends and another begins, babies use complex calculations that keep track of which syllables appear together — and thus likely form words. Known as ‘statistical learning’, we now know dogs are capable of similar feats.
Firstly, the researchers measured the dogs’ brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG). The tests were conducted on awake, unrestrained and cooperating dogs. They were able to walk away at any time. Secondly, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how similar the brain regions responsible for this complex computational capacity in dogs are to the those in the human brain. fMRI scanning of dogs was pioneered by Dr Gregory Berns in the 1990s. As with the EEG scans, the tests were performed on awake, cooperating, unrestrained animals, although the dogs involved were previously trained to lie motionless for the duration of the scans.
Overall, the findings suggest that the neural processes known to be key for human language acquisition may not be unique to humans after all, according to the researchers. The findings come in the same week that a study revealed that dogs tilt their heads when listening because it appears to help them hear and process information more easily.
The study found that dogs with the greatest number of head tilts recalled the names of their toys more reliably and that the action may help them hear and process requests. Known as asymmetrical behaviour including tail wagging and paw lifting. The behaviour is sometimes referred to as ‘triangulation’ or ‘orientation reflex’, thought to be a primitive reflex to help orientate prey. “Often owners observe dogs tilting their head but we still do not have a full understanding of the function and circumstances in which this behaviour happens. However, this study is the first step in this direction showing how this behaviour could be related to the presence of meaningful and salient auditory stimuli for the dog” said Marianna.