Dogs and Humans Are Hardwired to Listen

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Dog and human brains turn out to be surprisingly similar, at least where communication and emotions are concerned, a new study finds.

The research, published in the journal Current Biology, is the first to compare brain functions between humans and any non-primate animal. It found that both dogs and humans evolved to listen for emotion when someone communicates.

We humans can tell if a person or dog sounds happy or sad, for example, or if he or she is ready to fight. Dogs can do the same.

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“Dogs and humans share a similar social environment,” co-author Attila Andics, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said in a press release. “Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species.”

If you say something to your dog and he looks as though he understands, there’s a good chance he really does — at least in terms of the emotions you are conveying. This is probably one reason why dogs are so good at reading us. They are super sensitive to how you are really feeling, as opposed to focusing on what you are saying.

You might, for example, respond, “fine,” when a housemate asks how you’re feeling, but if you are under the weather, your dog likely senses the change.

For the study, Andics and colleagues trained 11 dogs to lay motionless in an fMRI brain scanner. Human test subjects did the same. The researchers then monitored brain activity while the dogs and people listened to nearly 200 dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing.

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In dogs and humans,  images show hearing a voice activates similar areas of the brain. The brains of dogs are more tuned to their own species. (I’ll bet experience can change that. If a person spends a lot of time around dogs, for example, they will fine-tune their doggy perception skills. Dogs surely do the same.)

An interesting difference, noted in the study, is that in dogs, 48 percent of all sound-sensitive brain regions respond more strongly to sounds other than voices. That’s in contrast to humans, in which only 3 percent of sound-sensitive brain regions show greater response to non-vocal sounds.

We then pay more attention to people talking than to, say, the sound of a squirrel chattering outside. Dogs still retain more of their wild ways, so the latter would be just as important to them.

The scientists say the study represents just the first step toward understanding how dogs are so good at figuring out the feelings of their humans.

“This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs,” Andics concluded. “At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment.”

Photo: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons