With Dogs, It’s What You Say — and How You Say It
Who’s a good dog?
Well, that depends on whom you’re asking, of course. But new research suggests that the next time you look at your pup, whether Maltese or mastiff, you might want to choose your words carefully.
“Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.
“我们说话的内容与方式，对狗来说都有关系，”布达佩斯厄特沃什·罗兰大学(Eotvos Lorand University)的研究员阿提拉·安迪克斯(Attila Andics)说。
Dogs that were trained to enter an M.R.I. machine for the research.
Dr. Andics, who studies language and behavior in dogs and humans, along with Adam Miklosi and several other colleagues, reported in a paper to be published in this week’s issue of the journal Science that different parts of dogs’ brains respond to the meaning of a word, and to how the word is said, much as human brains do.
As with people’s brains, parts of dogs’ left hemisphere react to meaning and parts of the right hemisphere to intonation — the emotional content of a sound. And, perhaps most interesting to dog owners, only a word of praise said in a positive tone really made the reward system of a dog’s brain light up.
The experiment itself was something of an achievement. Dr. Andics and his colleagues trained dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging machine and lie in a harness while the machine recorded their brain activity.
A trainer spoke words in Hungarian — common words of praise used by dog owners like “good boy,” “super” and “well done.” The trainer also tried neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.” Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.
The positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted strong activity in the brain’s reward centers. All the other conditions resulted in significantly less action, and all at the same level.
In other words, “good boy” said in a neutral tone and “however” said in a positive or neutral tone all got the same response.
What does it all mean? For dog owners, Dr. Andics said, the findings mean that the dogs are paying attention to meaning, and that you should, too.
That doesn’t mean a dog won’t wag its tail and look happy when you say, “You stinky mess” in a happy voice. But the dog is looking at your body language and your eyes, and perhaps starting to infer that “stinky mess” is a word of praise.
In terms of evolution of language, the results suggest that the capacity to process meaning and emotion in different parts of the brain and tie them together is not uniquely human. This ability had already evolved in non-primates long before humans began to talk.