A true story: In the neighborhood where I grew up, there is a family that owns a dog named Poophead. The parents told their son he could name the dog; the son chose what probably was, to an elementary-school boy, a pretty hilarious name; the parents learned that elementary-school boys should never be in charge of naming anything, but stuck to their word nonetheless.
And here we are. Poor Poophead doesn’t know any better — he just knows that his name is his name, because dogs only know the meaning that we teach them. They hear “good boy” as they’re getting a treat or a belly rub, and figure out that it means praise. They use context clues to learn that “no” means they’ve done something wrong, that “shake” means they should offer up a paw.
And they learn these things as much through our tone of voice as they do from the actual words we’re saying. “Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” Attila Andics, a research fellow at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, told the New York Times today. In a forthcoming study in the journal Science, Andics and his colleagues trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine, where they recorded the animals’ responses to various words and phrases:
A trainer spoke words in Hungarian — common words of praise used by dog owners like “good boy,” “super” and “well done.” The trainer also tried neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.” Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.
The positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted strong activity in the brain’s reward centers. All the other conditions resulted in significantly less action, and all at the same level.
In other words, affectionate words are meaningless when they aren’t delivered with the corresponding emotion — only praise presented as praise will register.
“This is very similar to what human brains do,” Andics said in a statement. Like us, the study’s canine subjects processed the word itself in the brain’s left hemisphere and its intonation in the right, linking the two together for a complete meaning. “Dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant.”
Or at least, they can correctly interpret those words within the context of what they’ve already been taught. The study findings “[don’t] mean a dog won’t wag its tail and look happy when you say, ‘You stinky mess’ in a happy voice,” the Times wrote. “But the dog is looking at your body language and your eyes, and perhaps starting to infer that ‘stinky mess’ is a word of praise.” Or that when someone calls you Poophead, you happily come over with your tail wagging.