Dogs Can Tell If You’re Speaking to Them in a Foreign Language, Study Finds

Dogs Can Tell If You’re Speaking to Them in a Foreign Language, Study Finds
Photo: Mladen Antonov/ AFP, Getty Images

When a dog hears a language different from its owners’ native tongue, its brain activity is noticeably different compared to when it hears a familiar language. Those are the findings of a new study that scanned canine noggins using MRI, and they’re yet another indication that dogs are adept at recognising the nuances of human communication.

Animal behaviour scientists in Hungary enlisted the aid of 18 dogs, all previously trained to sit still long enough to undergo a functional MRI scan. Most of these dogs had grown up listening to people speak Hungarian, while two had grown up around Spanish speakers. The dogs were then read a children’s story (The Little Prince) in both Spanish and Hungarian, by native speakers of each whom they had never met before. As a sort of control, they also listened to a scrambled version of both languages.

The brains of the dogs, the researchers found, tended to light up in two different ways when they listened to the story read naturally, depending on whether the language was native to the dog or not. This brain activity was concentrated around two regions long associated with decoding speech in both humans and dogs. On the other hand, there were no major differences in their brain activity when hearing the scrambled version of either language. The findings suggest that these dogs were able to notice the subtle linguistic differences between native and foreign speech and weren’t simply responding to differences between the readers themselves.

“In conclusion, we showed that the dog brain has the capacity to detect speech naturalness and distinguish between languages,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published last month in Neuroimage.

The dogs ranged in age from 3 to 11, and included golden retrievers, border collies, Australian shepherds, a cocker spaniel, and a few mutts. Interestingly, older dogs and those with longer snouts had greater differences in their brain activity during the experiments. The age difference might be simply the result of dogs having spent more time listening to their owners, but the team isn’t sure why longer-nose dogs may be better attuned to these sorts of language cues. Some breeds, such as shepherd dogs, could innately be more talented in this area, due to having been bred as herding animals that have to follow instructions well, the researchers speculated.

Of course, this is only one study with a small sample size, and it’s always difficult to interpret the minds of animals. But if validated, the findings do appear to demonstrate the unique evolutionary bond we’ve created with our furry friends, as well as their willingness to hang onto our every word.

“As many owners already know, dogs are social beings interested in what is happening in their social world,” study author Laura Cuaya, a postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eötvös Loránd University, told NBC News. “Our results show that dogs learn from their social environments, even when we don’t teach them directly. So, just continue involving your dogs in your family, and give them opportunities to continue learning.”