If you're a dog owner, you've probably had the feeling that your dog can actually understand exactly what you say. Well, now there's actual science to support it, at least when it comes to your praise. According to a study in the September 2 issue of Science, dogs not only can learn to associate certain words with praise, they may also understand your tone. In the first study to explore how dog brains process speech (and it's probably one of the most adorable studies to be conducted), researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest trained 13 dogs to lie motionless for an fMRI scanner that monitored their brain activity. The dogs then listened to recordings of both praise words such as "super" and neutral words such as "however," said by their trainers. The trainers also said the words in both happy/praising and neutral intonations. As the pooches listened to each combination, researchers used fMRI to analyze their brain activity, finding that dogs can process vocabulary and recognize certain words as distinct, regardless of the tone of a person's voice. Much like humans, dogs actually use the right and left hemispheres of their brains to register a tone of voice in a process that's separate from how they process the actual words.
The researchers also found that praise triggered the dogs' "reward center," the portion of their brains that responds to pleasurable stimulation like food, sex, or being petted. However, this only occurred if the dogs heard the praise words in a positive tone of voice as well. "It shows that for dogs, a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match," the study's lead researcher, Attila Andics, PhD, said in a press release. "So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant." Again, if you're a dog owner or have spent time around dogs, this probably isn't shocking, but it's good to know that it's not totally in your head. Dogs may hate hugs, but when it comes to your high-pitched "good boy," it's all love.