Brain Scans Reveal Dogs Understand Far More Words Than We Thought

RavenaJuly /
RavenaJuly /

It’s obvious to most people that dogs are capable of understanding some human speech. Most dogs are taught to “sit” and “heel” and can recognize their names when called. But how extensive is their understanding of human speech beyond simple commands? Researchers in Hungary hooked 18 dogs up to an EEG to try to find out and were surprised by the results.

The study’s findings were just published in the journal Current Biology. Researchers tested the dogs using what’s called a semantic violation paradigm.

The dogs’ owners would show them toys that they regularly use and call the toy by their name, such as “ball,” “chewy,” or “teddy.” The brain scans revealed that dogs generally know that certain words represent certain objects.

Words “activate a memory of an object when they hear its name,” says lead researcher Marianna Boros.

The dogs were then tested by holding up objects and referring to them by the wrong name. That’s the “semantic violation” part of the test. The brain scans differed when dogs were shown a matching object versus a mismatched one.

The same thing happens in brain scans of humans when you show them an object and call it the wrong thing. The only exception to this is probably when you test someone with severe dementia. Joe Biden, for example, often can’t tell the difference between a pangolin and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Researchers found that the ability to recognize words was present in all dogs and not just the ones with exceptional intelligence.

“Your dog understands more than he or she shows signs of,” says researcher Lilla Magyari. “Dogs are not merely learning a specific behavior to certain words, but they might actually understand the meaning of some individual words as humans do.”