It may be His Master’s Voice – but is it the tone or is it the words?

cc73de7c-eec7-4b1a-b366-f12fa46665d9.Large_ Many dog owners (particularly those who have particularly clever breeds like Border Collies) swear their dogs understand words. Others have always argued that dogs are really responding to tone of voice and the subtlest of body language signals.

Tia Ghose in Live Science reports that it may be both. ‘Man’s best friend not only hears the meaning of human speech, but also perceives the emotion behind it’. Because dogs are attuned to people’s posture, gaze and other forms of nonverbal communication, this makes it tricky to figure out just what words they do understand.

Victoria Ratcliffe with Dr. David Reby at Sussex University did some research. They brought 250 pet dogs of many different breeds into their lab. The dogs were placed in a room with speakers on either side of their heads.

The sound that a dog hears in its right ear is processed mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain (and vice versa), so when a dog turns its head right as it listens to a sound, researchers can conclude its left hemisphere played a strong role in processing that sound.

In Ratcliffe’s trial, the researchers played a clip of the owners saying the words “Come on, then!” but with the emotion electronically stripped out of their voice, and with the sound changed so the voice itself could no longer be identified. At other times, the dogs heard the owners say the same phrase, but with words garbled so they could not be understood, but emphasizing the intonation a3.12.10Picklend emotional content of the speech instead.

They found that dogs turned their heads to the right when they heard words without the emotions, suggesting the left hemisphere was processing that speech. By contrast, the dogs turned their heads to the left when they heard the emotional words, suggesting the right hemisphere was processing that content. And when they heard pink noise, a kind of static, the dogs didn’t turn their heads in either direction.

Is that the same with us?

According to Robin Lloyd in a very interesting article in Live Science, ‘A well-known asymmetry in humans is the right ear dominance for listening to verbal stimuli, which is thought to reflect the brain’s left hemisphere superiority for processing verbal information’ and further on, ‘Music – pitch, timbre and loudness are discriminated better with left ear (right hemisphere), but duration is better discriminated with the right ear (left hemisphere)’.

So, if we whisper ‘sweet nothings’ into her left ear, is she more likely to go weak at the knees? And if we are saying something factual, would we be better to talk into the person’s right ear?

Because humans, too, process language in the left hemisphere and emotional content in the right, Ratcliffe concludes that this suggests dogs and humans have at least some similarity in language processing.

Here is the story of a dog I went to a while back, a Border Collie who knew a lot of words in ‘command’ form, but knowing the words didn’t mean she was going to obey them!

Here is my main website and many more stories: www.dogidog.co.uk

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About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist (INTODogs-ABTC - AAB) and trainer covering Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks, a 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site: www.dogidog.co.uk
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