How do dogs understand us? Well according to Dog Project much better than we imagined

(Photo by Gregory Berns)

When some dogs listen to their owners say "squirrel", they get excited, they get agitated. They can even run to a window and look out. But what does the word "squirrel" mean to the dog? Does it mean "pay attention, something is happening?" Or does the dog really imagine a small rodent with a thick tail in his mind?

How does a human word represent a human word in the dog's brain?
Frontiers in Neuroscience has published one of the first studies that used brain images to test how our canine companions process the words they have been taught to associate with objects, made by scientists at Emory University.

The results suggest that dogs have at least a neural representation rudimentary of the meaning of the words they have been taught, differentiating the words they have heard before those that have no association.

" Many dog ​​owners think that their dogs they know what some words mean, but there really is not much scientific evidence to back it up "says Ashley Prichard, doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology of Emory and first author of the study. " We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves, not just the owner's reports ."

" We know that dogs have the ability to process at least some aspects of human language, since they can learn to follow verbal commands "adds Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns lead author of the study. " Previous research, however, suggests that dogs can rely on many other signals to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even the emotional expressions of their owners ." [19659000] Emory researchers focused on the questions that encompass the brain mechanisms that dogs use to differentiate between words or even what constitutes a word for a dog.

Previous studies " Dog Project "
Berns is the founder of the Dog Project, which investigates evolutionary questions about the best and oldest friend of man. The project was the first to train the dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during the scan, without restriction or sedation.

The studies conducted by Dog Project they have improved the understanding of the dogs' neuronal response to reward, they have identified specialized areas in the dog's brain to process faces, they have demonstrated olfactory responses to human and dog odors, and they have linked prefrontal function to inhibitory control.

The results of the new study
For the current study, 12 dogs of different breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two different objects, based on the names of the objects.

The pair of objects of each dog consisted of one with a smooth texture, like an animal of p eluche, and another in a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination.

The training consisted in instructing the dogs to look for one of the objects and then reward them with food or praises.

considered complete when a dog showed that he could discriminate between the two objects systematically obtaining the one requested by the owner when presented with both objects.

How the experiment was developed
During an experiment, the dog trained was located in the fMRI scanner while the dog owner was directly facing the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog's toys at set intervals, and then showed the dog the corresponding toys.

Eddie a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for example, heard his owner say the words "Piggy" or "Monkey", then his owner held the matching toy. As a control, the owner pronounced absurd words, such as "bobbu" and "bodmick", then held novelty objects such as a hat or a doll.

The results of the Dog Project showed greater activation in the regions auditory of the brain to the new pseudo-words in relation to the words trained.

" We expected to see that dogs discriminate between words they know and words they do not ," says Prichard. " What is surprising is that the result is the opposite of that of human research: people tend to show greater neuronal activation for known words than for new words ."

Researchers raise the hypothesis that dogs can show greater neuronal activation to a new word because they feel that their owners want them to understand what they are saying and are trying to do so. " Ultimately, dogs want to please their owners and perhaps also receive praise or food ," says Berns.

Special interest for new words, dogs strive to understand each other, but not all the same
Half of the dogs in the experiment showed greater activation in the face of novel words in their parietotemporal cortex, an area of ​​the brain that researchers believe may be analogous to angular gyro in humans, where lexical differences are processed.

The other half of the dogs, however, showed greater activity with novel words in other regions of the brain, including the other parts of the left temporal cortex and the amygdala, the caudate nucleus and thalamus.

These differences may be related to a study limitation: the variable range in breeds and sizes of dogs as well as po sible variations in their cognitive abilities.

A major challenge in mapping the cognitive processes of the canine brain the researchers acknowledge, is the variety of shapes and sizes of the brains of dogs in all races

" Dogs may have different abilities and motivations for learning and understanding human words ", says Berns, " but they seem to have a neural representation of the meaning of words that they were taught, beyond a low level Pavlovian response . "

But words are not the best means to communicate
This conclusion of Dog Project does not mean that spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. In fact, another research also conducted by Prichard and Berns and recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the neuronal reward system of dogs is more in tune with visual and olfactory signals than with verbal ones.

" When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that's what humans prefer "says Prichard. " However, from the dog's perspective, a visual command could be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster ."

The coauthors of the Frontiers in Neuroscience study ] include Peter Cook (New College of Florida neuroscientist), Mark Spivak (owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy) and Raveena Chhibber (information specialist in the Department of Psychology at Emory).

The co-authors of the article of Science Reports also include Spivak and Chhibber, along with Kate Athanassiades (from the Emory School of Nursing).

• More information: Emory University.

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