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Interpreting Growls
Study looks at human understanding of canine vocalizations.

I would think our dogs are better at understanding us since they devote so much time to studying our every move... and are much better at picking up on the subtleties we are too busy to notice.

There has been an increasing amount of research in recent years on canines and their ability to understand humans. But relatively little has focused on how well people understand dogs.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest set out to study our comprehension of canine language. They chose to focus on growls since they may be the most preserved mode of communication.

According to lead researcher Tamás Faragósays, barks have been the most studied canine vocalization, but have likely changed significantly as dogs were domesticated by humans. However, growls may not have changed much since dogs diverged from wolves.

Tamás' study tested people's understanding of three growl sounds recorded from three scenarios: playing tug of war, resource guarding food, and feeling threatened by a stranger.

Overall humans were pretty good at differentiating growl types, classifying them correctly about 63 percent of the time. Participants identified 81 percent of the play growls correctly, but were less accurate when it came to resource guarding and threatening growls (60 and 50 percent).

Interestingly, listeners rated threatening growls to be more fearful and less aggressive than the resource guarding. Although the threatening and resource guarding growls were similar acoustically, there were distinct differences between all three types.

“We found that playful growl bouts are built up from short, quickly repeated growls, while the aggressive ones were more elongated,” explained Tamás. “The food guarding growls differed from the threatening growls in their formant dispersion, a parameter that gives a size impression of the vocalizing individual for the listeners.”

It may come as no surprise that dog owners were better than non-dog people at correctly identifying a growl's meaning. Though previous research didn't find this same advantage when interpreting barks. Researchers hypothesize that this is because barks are loud and easily heard, while growls are quieter and likely to be heard regularly by only those who spend a lot of time with dogs.

The study also found that women were better at distinguishing between the growls.

“This is a common pattern in emotion recognition studies,” says Tamás. “Probably women are more empathic and sensitive to others’ emotions, and this helps them to better associate the contexts with the emotional content of the growls.”

Tamás' team has also been conducting fMRI scans on humans and canines. They've found that people and dogs process emotional vocalization similarly, suggesting that, among mammals, there are simple rules rooted in biology that define how emotional states get translated into sound structure.

Another interesting similarity we share with our pups!

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by smerikal/flickr.

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