Sunday, September 11, 2016

259.5 - And Another Thing: dogs understand language

And Another Thing: dogs understand language

Finally for this week, a very quick instance of one of our occasional features called And Another Thing, where we step away from political stuff and step into some cool science stuff.

This time, it's the news that according to a new study, yes, your dog really does understand you. Not only can dogs understand the intonation used to say words, they can also understand the meaning of the words themselves. Not only that, but brain scans done in the study reveal that dogs process language using the same regions of the brain as people do.

Now, I have to say this comes as no surprise to me and, I suspect, a good number of dog owners.

In my case, I did my own little experiment. I had a dog named Penny. She was the smartest dog I have ever personally dealt with. I'm not claiming she was the smartest dog ever or the smartest in the world or whatever, but I do say she was the smartest with which I had personal experience - including both the dogs of friends and neighbors and the 10 dogs which I have owned over the years.

Penny always seemed to be able to learn the meaning of words and, importantly, to do it without any special training or sometimes, even without any intention on our part for her to do so.

For one prime example, she loved being outside. I used to call her a mudder because she didn't seem to care what the weather was or how nasty it was. She loved it so much that it got to the point where we couldn't even use the word "outside" in the middle of a sentence without hearing her bark, followed by the sound of a slide and a bang as she slid down the back hall and into the door leading to the yard, waiting to be let out.

So I decided to do a direct test. The word we used for dog treats was "goodie." We would offer the dogs - we had three at the time - treats by saying something like "Do you want a goodie?" but it would be in that sort of higher-than-normal-pitch tone of excitement that people often adopt for such occasions.

So I called Penny and said in that sort of voice "Do you want, do you want" - Penny is getting excited now, starting to come up on her back legs - "a schmidlap?" The excitement deflates. Penny looks confused. (I can't say that I actually said "schmidlap" as opposed to some other irrelevant word, even though it always has been one of my favorite nonsense words.)

"Do you want, do you want" - more excitement - "a reebzap?" Deflation. Confusion. (Ditto comment about "schmidlap.")

"What about," said in as flat a tone as I could manage and lacking the upturn at the end that indicates a question, "a goodie."

Bark bark bark bark!

Yeah, she knew the word.

And oh yeah, by the way, eventually, it got to the point where my wife and I could not even spell the word "outside" to ask each other if the dogs had been out recently without initiating a Pennygasm.

So I knew that dogs can know words, not just tone of voice, a long time ago. Still, it's always nice to have confirmation and the fact that dogs use the same parts of their brain to process language that we do is new information and pretty cool.

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