Follow for more talkers

Dog language is far more complex than one might think

“This has never been seen in other non-human mammals before."

Avatar photo


Researchers scanned the dogs’ brains with an MRI machine (Grzegorz Eliasiewicz via SWNS)

By Tom Campbell via SWNS

Dogs learn individual words using similar brain powers to humans, suggests a new study.

They perform complex statistical calculations to determine whether syllables are likely to form a word or not, according to a new study.

Young children can spot new words in a stream of speech long before they understand what they actually mean.

When listening to someone speaking, they make complex calculations to determine where one word ends and another begins, also known as word boundaries.

But whether other mammals can perform these intricate calculations to extract words from speech has remained a mystery.

Now researchers in Hungary have found man’s best friend does just that.

Dogs pick up on individual words using similar brain powers to humans, suggests the new study (Grzegorz Eliasiewicz via SWNS)

Study lead author Dr. Marianna Boros, of Eötvös Loránd University, said: “What makes speech special is that its efficient processing requires complex computations.

“This is exactly how humans, even 8-month-old infants, solve the seemingly difficult task of word segmentation.

“They calculate complex statistics about the probability of one syllable following the other.”

The researchers tested family dogs’ brain capacities by measuring its electrical activity using an electroencephalograph (EEG).

Dr. Boros said: “Dogs are the earliest domesticated animal species and probably the one we speak most often to.

“Still, we know very little about the neural processes underlying their word learning capacities.”

The dog’s brains responded differently to different words and when syllables were often paired together.

A happy pup hooked up to an EEG during the study (Grzegorz Eliasiewicz via SWNS)

Co-author Dr. Lilla Magyari said: “Interestingly, we saw differences in dogs' brain waves for frequent compared to rare words.

“But even more surprisingly, we also saw brain wave differences for syllables that always occurred together compared to syllables that only occasionally did, even if total frequencies were the same.”

The scans prove that dogs keep track of complex statistics, such as the chances of two syllables being paired, as well as simpler calculations.

Dr. Magyari said: “This has never been seen in other non-human mammals before.

“It is exactly the kind of complex statistics human infants use to extract words from continuous speech."

The researchers also scanned the dogs’ brains with a functional MRI machine to see whether they were using similar brain regions to humans.

For this, they had to be trained to lie still while for the time of the measurements.

Researchers scanned the dogs’ brains with a functional MRI machine (Grzegorz Eliasiewicz via SWNS)

Dr. Boros said: “We know that in humans both general learning-related and language-related brain regions participate in this process.

“And we found the same duality in dogs.”

Both the dogs’ specialist and generalist brain regions were involved in the speech learning process, but the patterns of brain activity were different, the researchers found.

Dr. Boros said: “The generalist brain region, the so-called basal ganglia, responded stronger to a random speech stream, where no words could be spotted using syllable statistics, than to a structured speech stream, where words were easy to spot just by computing syllable statistics.

“The specialist brain region, the so-called auditory cortex, that in humans plays a key role in statistical learning from speech, showed a different pattern.”

Brain activity increases over time for the structured but not for the random speech stream.

Dr Boros said: “We believe that this activity increase is the trace word learning leaves on the auditory cortex."

More research is needed to determine how dogs have picked up these human-like skills.

But we still don't know how these human-analog brain mechanisms for word learning emerged in dogs.

Dr. Attila Andics said: “Do they reflect skills that developed by living in a language-rich environment, or during the thousands of years of domestication, or do they represent an ancient mammalian capacity?

“We see that by studying speech processing in dogs, even better dog breeds with different communication abilities and other species living close to humans, we can trace back the origins of human specialisations for speech perception.”

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

Stories and infographics by ‘Talker Research’ are available to download & ready to use. Stories and videos by ‘Talker News’ are managed by SWNS. To license content for editorial or commercial use and to see the full scope of SWNS content, please email [email protected] or submit an inquiry via our contact form.

Top Talkers