Although The Secret Life Of Pets purported to show us what our fuzzy best friends get up to when we leave them for the day, the movie omitted any and all scenes dedicated to dogs’ mastery of syntax and semantics. We know that sounds far-fetched, but bear with us here. NPR has shared a new report from the Science journal that indicates canine brains function “amazingly similar to how human brains do” when it comes to interpreting language. So your pup knows when you actually mean your “good boy’s” and “good girl’s.” That’s right—in addition to having a great nose, your dog has a highly-tuned bullshit detector.
This probably isn’t a groundbreaking revelation for dog owners, who have been watching what they say around their animal companions for some time, for fear of triggering separation anxiety or confusing them about the meal schedule. But according to Science, dogs are able to “separate the meaning of words from the intonation,” and analyze the parts of speech independently. Researchers conducted a study on only willing dogs—the report makes sure to note that, though it’s not clear how the ol’ Pooper Scooper troopers gave informed consent—whose brains were scanned as both genuine and insincere praise was heaped on them.
Dr. Attila Andics, a neuroscientist at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, acknowledges that there are plenty of amateur researchers out there who have tested this theory for themselves by gleefully squealing “bad dog” or something similar to try to get one over on their four-legged friends. But in those cases, the dogs are picking up on facial cues and other things to determine authenticity. However, the dogs who participated in the study had only words and inflection to go on, and they saw right through the ruse, at which point they presumably had to be convinced that the CT scanner wasn’t a much larger animal who had to be taken down.
“Here, the only information they had was the speech signal,” Dr. Andics stated. “What we saw is that for praise to be processed as a reward, when there is no other supporting information, both word meaning and intonation have to fit.” This means that if you come home to find that your dog has peed on your new couch, they won’t really believe your annoyed “thanks for helping me waste $1500.” And while it’s too bad that your passive-aggressiveness isn’t having any effect on your dog, the researchers think that the seemingly shared “neural mechanism to tell apart meaningful words from meaningless sound sequences is…really amazing.”
And to continue in that “dogs are amazing” vein, Dr. Andics said that the study is the “first major finding using noninvasive neuroscience with awake animals,” who are usually restrained or otherwise medicated. “That just changes everything. You literally can see what’s going on in their brains just like you would with people. And it’s really the first time that this has led to a big discovery and I think we’re going to see a lot more of this.” Now to see what parts of their brains light up when they chase their tails.