We human beings have a totally unfounded sense of entitlement. We just think we're the most intelligent, most special snowflakes in the kingdom Animalia. We're the smartest creatures ever! We're the only animals with chins! We're the only ones that can process language by using our super-specialized brains! While we might be the only animals with chins for some reason (yippee!), we are not the only ones that can understand human vocabulary. A study published last week in Science found that dogs' brains can "segregate and integrate lexical and intonational information". Translation: Little Rufus knows what you're saying. And he doesn't appreciate your tone.
Turns out, dogs process speech a lot like us humans and they can understand both our words and intonation. Hungarian scientists-slash-dog-lovers trained 13 dogs to lay completely motionless for 8 minutes (that means no licking) in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Let me pause right here and point out how completely amazing this is. To do this, the scientists used the "model-rival training method": a social learning technique where the dog-in-training becomes the center of attention and praise, and all the other dogs can't wait for their turn in the spotlight. No freeze-dried liver required. The researchers used fMRI brain scans to look at changes in the dogs' brain activity when they heard recordings of their trainers' voices saying praise words ("good boy") or neutral words ("nevertheless" - an odd choice for a neutral word, methinks) in either a positive and neutral tone of voice.
The scientists discovered that positive words increased activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, while positive tone of voice increased activity in the right hemisphere. This suggests that dogs use their left brain to process meaning and their right brain to process intonation - just like humans! The researchers also found that only positive words spoken in a positive tone of voice increased activity in the reward center of the brain. This suggests that dogs can recognize when they're actually being praised and when they're getting tricked into going to the veterinarian. Who's a good dog? Isn't it obvious.