Study conducted on verbal processing and how dogs understand humans

Published 6:40 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019


K9 Corner

In scanning my email this week, I came across an article about a study made in Budapest, Hungary, on scanning the brains of trained dogs as they listen to their handlers’ voices. This was reported by Dr. Karen Becker and presented by Mercola. It might remind us that it is important to use a happy tone and words that the dog can relate to when praising.

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Using the words “super,” “good job,” or maybe “awesome” in a happy voice activates both sides of the dog’s brain. OK, what do I mean by “happy?” Think of going over to a large window as the setting sun streams rainbow colors across the sky and you react by saying “Ohhh, heavenly.” The way you respond is with a happy tone, the kind of tone dogs can process.

In the study, the dogs were trained to lie still inside the barrel of an fMRI machine but were not restrained in any way. At one point the handler would praise in a happy voice; at another point the handler would use the same words but with a neutral voice.

Using meaningless words like “however” or “nevertheless” with the two different tones tested the dogs on response to words that had meaning to the animals and words that had no meaning. The scanner showed that the dogs did not respond to the meaningless words.

It was discovered that the left hemisphere of the dog’s brain processes meaningful words, whereas the right hemisphere processes vocal tones. Meaningless words did not activate the left side of the brain of the canine subjects.

This is similar to the way humans process meaningful words and tones of voice. Praise strongly triggers the part of the brain that processes enjoyable sensations, but only when spoken in a happy positive tone.

I was curious on how the animals were trained and protected from the noise of the scanner so I searched the Internet. I found my answer at Companion Animal Psychology (

It is a study at Emory University that successfully trained two dogs (though the picture showed at least seven) to tolerate an fMRI scanner by lying down with the head in a molded chin rest. The dogs were trained to wear headphones to protect their sensitive ears from the noise of the scanner. The training was or only 10 minutes a day, but it continued every day for several months before the real testing started.

This is just the beginning of testing animals, in this case dogs, to see what part of their brains are used when certain stimuli are present. So far, the results of both studies have shown that the domesticated dog uses the same parts of the brain as humans especially when the stimuli contains emotional overtones such as laughter or crying. I liked the fact that the vocal words given with laughter stimulated the brains better than the vocal words given with tears.