10-year-olds May Understand Dogs Best

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(Image: charmaineswart)

Our ability to understand dogs may peak when we’re around 10 years of age, with preadolescents possessing a natural talent for deciphering dog barks, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, could help to strengthen the theory that there’s a universal animal “language.” The connections allow us to understand rudimentary meanings of many animal calls, especially those made by mammals.

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But there’s also no question that humans and dogs enjoy a special bond. Recently, for example, I reported on a 26,000-year-old dog found with a mammoth bone in its mouth. Our species has likely been closely connected to wolves and dogs since the Stone Age. We’ve therefore had plenty of time to develop, and probably even evolve, a deep understanding of dogs.

Study co-author Csaba Molnár told Discovery News that the new research proves “that basic understanding of barks is an inherited trait in humans, and learning can only slightly improve this ability.”

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For the study, led by Péter Pongrácz of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, children (aged 6, 8 and 10 years) and adults listened to different types of dog barks. Some of the barks were recorded when dogs were alone. Others were recorded when dogs were playing or encountering strangers. The listeners had to categorize the barks correctly by matching them to human facial expressions: fearful/lonely, angry, playful.

All of the listeners could easily tell when dogs were angry. Only the older kids, however, correctly understood the other types of barks. They scored about the same as adults.

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The authors conclude, “This shows that the ability of understanding basic inner states of dogs on the basis of acoustic signals is present in humans from a very young age. These results are in sharp contrast with other reports in the literature which showed that young children tend to misinterpret canine visual signals.”

Molnár and colleagues also, not too long ago, studied how well blind-at-birth people understand dog barks. Blind people were targeted because their “understanding of barks is not affected by visual memory.” 

The blind also have a basic understanding of the inner states of dogs, based on hearing barks. This further strengthens the theory that we are all born with an ability to figure out canine vocalizations, at least to some extent.

Aside from our bond with dogs, the findings make sense, because animals in the wild often eavesdrop on each other, benefitting their survival. To some extent, birds understand squirrel speak, for example, and vice versa. Our ancestors surely kept an ear out for such sounds, too.