Dogs can associate some words with objects, research suggests

By | April 1, 2024

According to a recent study, dogs can understand that certain words refer to specific objects. This suggests that they can understand words in a similar way to humans.

It provides the first evidence of brain activity for this concept in a non-human animal, researchers said, although the study’s conclusion has drawn 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 behavior, often involving a treat or two, but disentangling their understanding of nouns has proven more difficult.

To understand dogs’ language skills, Lilla Magyari, an associate professor at Stavanger University in Norway and a researcher at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and Marianna Boros, a postdoctoral researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, were inspired by studies on the concept of babies before she can speak. They decided to recreate these experiments with dogs, they said.

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 matching object or another object while small metal disks attached harmlessly to the dogs’ heads measured brain activity in a process known as electroencephalography (EEG).

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

Researchers measured the dogs' brain activity.  -Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

Researchers measured the dogs’ brain activity. -Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

“Our claim is to say that a dog understands a word, which means that in the absence of the object the dog activates a so-called mental representation,” Boros said. “We can imagine it as the memory of that object.

“When the owner shows the object that does not match that mental representation, there is a very typical brain response that we have observed in the dog’s brain and that is generally accepted in humans as an index of … semantic understanding.”

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

Words that dogs knew better – as determined by their owners – also caused a greater mismatch effect when the wrong object was shown, which researchers said strengthened their hypothesis.

Previous experiments testing dogs’ comprehension of nouns required them to retrieve specific objects when prompted, according to a statement from Eötvös Loránd University.

This method suggested that dogs retrieved the correct object only at a rate expected by chance, although as Magyari noted, dogs may be unmotivated or distracted during trials.

Researchers tested the dogs' understanding of nouns.  -Marianna BorosResearchers tested the dogs' understanding of nouns.  -Marianna Boros

Researchers tested the dogs’ understanding of nouns. -Marianna Boros

Using EEG eliminated the need for this behavioral response and allowed researchers to test the dogs’ “passive understanding, as they may be able to reveal more than they can display or show,” she added.

But the true extent of the dogs’ understanding is still unknown, even by the study authors, because the dogs responded to their own toys and objects that their owners brought to the lab.

“In this study, all we know is that when they heard the words, they expected their (own) objects,” Magyari said.

“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, meaning whether they think the ball refers to many ball-like things, not just their own ball. This is something that further research needs to look into.”

Clive Wynne, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the university’s Canine Science Collaboratory lab, told CNN that the experiment was a “clever” concept, but it showed that dogs understood a “stimulus” followed by a ” important consequence” instead of the intrinsic meaning. to a word.

Owners held up objects to test their dogs' understanding.  -Oszkar Daniel GatiOwners held up objects to test their dogs' understanding.  -Oszkar Daniel Gati

Owners held up objects to test their dogs’ understanding. -Oszkar Daniel Gati

He said that the time delay in the experiment was “neither here nor there, if it is conditioned there can be a pause of several seconds” and that only familiar words would elicit a response that would explain the larger mismatch effect.

He said dogs were missing the two areas of the brain that are crucial for human understanding of language. Therefore, the EEG pattern highlighted by the researchers was not shared by humans.

“If we say that the brain wave pattern shows you that it must be an understanding of words, then it must be the same pattern,” he said.

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

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