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(CNN) --

Dogs can understand that certain words refer to specific objects, according to a new study, suggesting they could understand words in a similar way to humans.

According to the researchers, this is the first evidence of brain activity of this type of understanding in a non-human animal, although the study's conclusion has faced scrutiny from other experts in the field.

It has long been known that dogs can learn commands like "sit," "stay," or "fetch" and respond to these words with learned behaviors, often with the help of one or two rewards, but unraveling their understanding of nouns. It has been more difficult.

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To understand the linguistic abilities of dogs, Lilla Magyari, associate professor at the University of Stavanger, Norway and researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary, and Marianna Boros, postdoctoral researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, were inspired by studies on dog comprehension. of babies before they can speak. They decided to imitate these experiments with dogs.

As lead authors of the study, they devised an experiment in which 18 dog owners said words for objects their dogs already knew. The owners then held up the corresponding object or a different one while small metal discs harmlessly attached to the dogs' heads measured brain activity in a process known as electroencephalography (EEG).

In this way, the scientists observed that the brain activity of 14 of the 18 dogs was different when they were shown an object that matched the word, compared to one that did not match. They claim that the resulting brain activity was the same as that produced by humans in similar experiments.

The researchers measured the dogs' brain activity. Credit: Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

"To say that a dog understands a word means that, in the absence of the object, the dog activates a supposed mental representation," explains Boros. "We can imagine it as the memory of that object. When the owner shows the object that does not match that mental representation, a very typical brain response is produced that we observe in the dog's brain and that in humans is widely accepted as an index of. .. semantic understanding".


There was a two-second interval between the owners saying the word for an object and showing it to them, a condition that favored the interpretation that the dogs understood the words rather than simply associating them with the object, the researchers argued in the study.

The words the dogs knew best, determined by their owners, also produced a greater mismatch effect when the wrong object was shown, which the researchers said strengthened their hypothesis.

According to a statement from Eötvös Loránd University, in previous experiments to test dogs' understanding of nouns, they had to fetch specific objects when asked.

This method suggested that dogs only searched for the correct object in the proportion expected by chance, although, as Magyari noted, dogs can be unmotivated or distracted during studies.

The researchers tested the dogs' understanding of nouns. Credit: Marianna Boros

With the electroencephalogram, this behavioral response was not necessary and the researchers were able to verify the "passive understanding of the dogs, because perhaps they can reveal more than they are capable of exhibiting or showing," he adds.

But the true extent of the dogs' understanding remains unknown, even to the study's authors, as the dogs responded to their own toys and objects that owners brought to the lab.

"In this study, we only know that when they heard the words they expected their (own) objects," explains Magyari.

"So we don't know how much (understanding)... they have about the relationship between the word and the object, whether it also reflects categorical knowledge, which means whether they think that the ball refers to many things similar to the ball and not just his own ball. This is something that other studies should look at."

Clive Wynne, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the university's Canine Scientific Collaboration lab, told CNN that the experiment was a "clever" concept, but it showed that dogs understood a "stimulus" followed by a "consequence." important" rather than the intrinsic meaning of a word.

Owners held up objects to check their dogs' understanding. Credit: Oszkar Daniel Gati

Wynne maintains that the time delay in the experiment "was neither here nor there, if it's conditioning there can be a lag of a few seconds" and that only familiar words elicited a response, which explained the larger mismatch effect.

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Dogs lack the two brain areas crucial for human understanding of language, so the EEG pattern observed by the researchers is not the same as that in humans.

"If we're saying that the pattern of brain waves shows that it must be an understanding of words, it needs to be the same pattern," he said.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology on March 22.