Say What? Study Proves Dogs Understand Human Speech

Courtesy, gallery

You may think your dog has trouble learning and obeying commands, but it turns out your pooch might just be exhibiting selective hearing.  A new study in Science Magazine shows your canine understands much more than you thought they did.  Canine responses appear to be based on the tone of voice when paired with the words spoken to them.  And now there’s scientific evidence to prove it!


Iris at Brooklyn ACC
Iris at Brooklyn ACC

According to the study, dogs respond differently if you say the same thing in a neutral voice or in a positive tone, though the study didn’t investigate that high squeaky voice many of us use when speaking to our pets!


The study, from a University in Budapest, Hungary, reports that different parts of dogs’ brains process and react to a word they know and how it’s said, in a fashion similar to our own brains.


Lab mix in Columbia SC
Lab mix in Columbia SC

Using an MRI, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, the scientists trained 13 dogs of different breeds to enter the chamber and lie down without moving, while images recorded the dogs’ brain activity. Then they said common words like “good boy” and “well done,” as well as unusual words like “however” and “as if.”  All words were said in neutral and praising tones.


Jumanji, Pasco County A.S., Florida
Jumanji, Pasco County A.S., Florida

The images showed high brain activity when the praising, known words were spoken in positive tones.  Little activity was shown with known words spoken in neutral tones or unknown words spoken in either praising or neutral tones.


“There’s no acoustic reason for this difference,” said neuroscientist Attila Andics.  “It shows that these words have meaning to dogs.”


Scientists say that the dogs are paying attention to meaning and JqrB4BX
emotion in words, and interpreting them.  According to Science, some dogs are known to recognize more than 1000 human words, way over and above the usual “cookie,” “walk,” “car” and “park” we pet parents all use.


They also believe dogs carefully watch your body language and your eyes. This is especially true in hearing-impaired animals. So if you’re in the habit of calling your dog a silly goober in any language, but smiling when you say it, you’ll probably get a tail wag and a smile right back.


Rocky at Dallas Animal Services
Rocky at Dallas Animal Services

The dogs featured in this story are all looking for homes – click on their photos for more information!

Lisa Blanck

Writing articles about animals for more than 22 years, she dove into the rescue world with the onset of Hurricane Katrina. As an outspoken advocate for animals, she's covered everything from paws to hooves, fins to feathers. She was the Orlando Animal Rescue and Worldwide Animal Issues Examiner for seven years. She's always thinking pawsitive, looking for ways to improve the lives of animals. She lives with one dog, one cat and one patient human. She welcomes your suggestions and is thrilled to be part of the family!


  1. Joan osranj says:

    I just read a non fiction book ” Wesley the Owl” and this owl lived with the author. A biologist for 20 years and understood many words. It is an excellent book and there are many non human species that communicate

  2. HarryCoyote says:

    Did the same experiment with a pet dog years ago. However, neither my study nor the above took the variable smell into consideration. My current dog seems to know “things” before it sees or hears me.

  3. Ken Obenski says:

    They left out smell.
    What dogs can know by smell is beyond human coprehention

  4. NAOMI says:

    Another great article by Lisa Blanck

  5. Mongoose218 says:

    Excellent information! How can ANYONE think dogs (or any animals “close” to humans) feel/ think “nothing” but are only interested in food?

  6. mongibello says:

    No surprise for pet owners. My cats react in the same way. I would imagine many species of animals, that live closely with their human, do as well.

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