Do dogs study language? New research shows they may have better language abilities than we realize.
Though I’m a native English speaker, I’ve learned some Spanish, which I think is a beautiful language. So my husband and I named our first dog “Rio,” the Spanish word for “river.”
We also wanted a more dignified cue when it’s time for him to relieve himself outside, so instead of “go potty” or “do your pees and poops,” we taught him the Spanish word for bathroom, “baño.”
Then one day when I suggested Rio “baño” in the presence of a new acquaintance, she asked sarcastically, “Oh, are you teaching him to be bilingual?”
I dismissed the comment as snark, but there was a kernel of truth in it. An exciting new study found dogs do have the capacity to distinguish between different languages – and between language and gibberish.
The idea for “Speech naturalness detection and language representation in the dog brain” came from brain researcher Laura Cuaya, PhD, who moved from Mexico to Hungary for postdoctoral work – and brought her two Border Collies. The dogs were familiar with Spanish. Could they tell Hungarian was a different language?
For this brain imaging study, Cuaya and her colleagues studied 18 adult family dogs who were trained to sit still in an MRI machine, and who had heard only one of the two languages from their owners.
The dogs – both male and female – ranged in age from 3 to 11 years and included five Golden Retrievers, six Border Collies (including Cuaya’s), two Australian Shepherds, one Labradoodle, one Cocker Spaniel, and three mixed-breed dogs.
While the dogs rested in the MRI machines, they listened to recordings of chapter 21 of “The Little Prince,” the classic novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in both Hungarian and Spanish. The chapter (about the prince meeting a fox) was read by two different native speakers, women with similar voices. The dogs also listened to scrambled chapters (aka gibberish).
The results found different brain pattern activities when hearing familiar and unfamiliar languages, and different processing of natural speech vs. scrambled speech.
The dogs in the study – Akira, Alma, Barack, Barney, Bingo, Bodza, Bran, Döme, Grog, Joey, Kun-kun, Maverick, Maya, Mini, Monty, Odín, Pán, and Sander – are pioneers not just in canine cognition, but for animals in general. To quote from the study itself: “The present study provides the first evidence of distinct brain activity patterns for two languages in a non-human species.”
While these results further our understanding of dogs’ intelligence and capabilities, they come as no surprise to Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, professor emeritus at Tufts University, and cofounder of the nonprofit Center for Canine Behavior Studies. (Dr. Dodman was not involved in the study, which took place in Budapest, Hungary.)
“I love these MRI studies because they prove what most dog owners already know,” he says. “My dog Rusty is very good with language.”
When asked if practicing speaking a new language in the presence of our dogs might provide an unusual form of enrichment by providing mental stimulation, Dr. Dodman says while it’s possible, it might be more helpful to build overall communication skills in your own language.
Other studies have shown that dogs can learn hundreds of words; a border collie named Chaser famously learned over 1,000 words.
“You could train a new English word every week or every month and start building on that,” he says. “The owner would be interacting with the dog and speaking in a useful language that we’re using every day, and it would increase the bonding between the owner and the dog.”
Still, he feels this dog language comprehension study is helpful for deepening our appreciation for canine cognition and may provide another compelling reason for humans to treat dogs with the love and respect they deserve.
“They read our body language, they listen to our language. They follow our cues. They have an array of emotions depending on the circumstances,” he says. “The dog is an intelligent and feeling creature.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.
Published March 21, 2022