Dogs can match some words to objects, study suggests

Dogs can understand that certain words refer to specific things, according to a recent study, which suggests that they may understand words in a similar way to humans.

It provides the first evidence of brain activity for this understanding in a non-human animal, researchers said, although the study’s conclusion has been examined by other experts in the field.

It’s long been known that dogs can learn commands like “sit,” “wait,” or “fetch” and respond to these words with learned behaviors, often with the help of a treat or two, but without their understanding. on resolving nouns. proved more difficult.

To understand the language skills of dogs, Lilla Magyari, an associate professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway and a researcher at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and Marianna Boros, a postdoctoral researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, inspired studies that investigated the understanding of infants before they arrived. able to speak. They decided to imitate these experiments with dogs, they said.

As the lead authors of the study, they devised an experiment in which 18 dog owners said words for things their dogs already knew. Then, the owners held up the matching object or another and small metal discs attached harmlessly to the dogs’ heads measured brain activity in a process called electroencephalography (EEG).

In this way, scientists observed that brain activity in 14 of the 18 dogs was different when they were shown an object that matched the word, compared to one that did not. They said the resulting brain activity was the same as that produced by humans in similar experiments.

Researchers measured the dogs' brain activity.  - Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

Researchers measured the dogs’ brain activity. – Grzegorz Eliasiewicz

“Our claim is to say that a dog understands a word, it means that in the absence of the object, the dog activates a so-called mental representation,” said Boros. “We can imagine it as a memory for that.

“When the owner shows the object that does not match that mental representation, then there is a very typical brain response that we observed in the dog’s brain that is widely accepted in humans as an index of … semantic understanding .”

There was a two-second gap between owners saying an object word and showing it, a condition that favored the interpretation that dogs understood the words rather than simply associating them with the object, the researchers argued in the study.

Words that were better known to dogs – as judged by their owners – also produced a larger inconsistency effect when the wrong object was shown, which researchers said strengthened their hypothesis.

Previous experiments testing dogs’ understanding of nouns involved them receiving specific objects when asked, according to a statement released by Eötvös Loránd University.

This method suggested that dogs only found the correct object at the rate expected by chance, but, as Magyari noted, dogs may not be motivated or paying attention during study.

Researchers were testing the dogs' understanding of nouns.  - Marianna BorosResearchers were testing the dogs' understanding of nouns.  - Marianna Boros

Researchers were testing the dogs’ understanding of nouns. – Marianna Boros

By using EEG, there was no need for this behavioral response and the researchers were able to “test the dogs’ passive understanding because they may be able to reveal more than they are able to show or show,” she said.

But the true extent of the dogs’ understanding is not yet known, even by the authors of the study, since the dogs were responding to their own toys and objects brought to the laboratory by their owners.

“In this study, we only know that when they heard the words they expected their (own) objects,” Magyari said.

“So we don’t know how much (understanding)… they have of the relationship between the word and the object, whether it also reflects categorical knowledge, meaning whether they think that the ball refers to many things like a ball , not just theirs. own ball. This is something that needs to be examined by further studies.”

Clive Wynne, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the university’s Collaborative Canine Science lab, told CNN the experiment was a “clever” concept but showed that dogs understood a “stimulus” followed by an “important consequence” rather than the meaning. intrinsic. with a word.

Owners held up objects to test their dogs' understanding.  - Oszkar Daniel GatiOwners held up objects to test their dogs' understanding.  - Oszkar Daniel Gati

Owners held up objects to test their dogs’ understanding. – Oszkar Daniel Gati

He said the time delay in the experiment was “neither here nor there, if it’s conditioning there could be a gap of several seconds” and that only familiar words would elicit a response that would explain the larger discrepancy effect.

He said that dogs lacked the two brain areas that are critical to human understanding of language and therefore did not share the EEG pattern highlighted by the researchers in humans.

“If we’re claiming that the pattern of mental illness shows you that it must be an understanding of words, then you must be on the same pattern,” he said.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology on March 22.

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