How Dogs Process Speech

Study uncovers similarity between the human and canine brain.
By JoAnna Lou, November 2014, Updated June 2021
I like to think that my dogs can understand what I'm saying. Of course they don't know English, but they've learned to make associations with certain words and cue off of the inflection in my voice. Even if they can't understand everything that comes out of my mouth, my pets can tell the difference between when I'm angry, excited, or sad. In some ways this is similar to communicating with a person who speaks a different language. That comparison may not be that far off as we learn more about how the canine brain translates human speech.

A study published last week found that dogs process words with meaning in a different part of the brain than where they deal with meaningless verbal sounds in which they must look for emotional cues.

Victoria Ratcliffe at the University of Sussex set up an experiment among 250 dogs to explore how they understand and process the different components of our speech. Scientists know that animals show hemispheric bias (which side of the brain is doing the work) in how they translate sounds of their own species, but Victoria wanted to explore if domesticated animals would show hemispheric bias for human sounds.

In the study, speakers were put on either side of the dogs' heads that played the same sound. First Victoria played a voice saying a word that held meaning to the dog (like "come"), then she played around with the speech by removing inflections or replacing the words with meaningless verbal noise. Each time Victoria played a sound, she recorded which way the dogs turned their head.

Although both speakers played the same recording, the dogs consistently turned their heads towards the left or right speaker, depending on the noise. When the pups heard a meaningful word, about 80 percent turned their head to the right (engaging the left hemisphere of their brain). When they heard a meaningless sound (and had to pick up on emotional cues), most dogs turned their head to the left (engaging the right hemisphere of the brain).

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Victoria believes that dogs break up speech into two parts: emotional cues and meaning. It then processes these two components on opposite sides of the brain, emotional cues in the right hemisphere and meaning in the left hemisphere--similar to humans!

Neurobiologist, Attila Andics at the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, believes that this information could even be used to more efficiently communicate with your dog, targeting emotional noises to the left ear and cues you want the dog to understand clearly to the right ear. This doesn't seem that practical, especially since most words out of your mouth will have both emotion and meaning to the dog, but I would love to see more research in this area so we can uncover information that can help us better communicate with our pets.

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