The Science Behind Why a Dog Loves to Be Called a “Good Boy.”

Who’s a Good Boy?

Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds is a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at McGill University in Montréal. In a 2018 she wrote an article for the Massive Science website where she suggests that dogs have a certain amount of linguistic abilities. “We talk to our dogs not only to praise them, but to ask them to perform actions, to identify objects…. And, for the most part, they seem to possess some level of understanding.” She also references a well-known border collie named Rico, who knew the names of all of his toys (something I wrote about sometime ago).

She goes on to say that how dogs process human language is still unknown.

In an October 17, 2018 blog post, Dr. Marc Bekoff wrote about the research being done by Dr. Gregory Berns at Emory University, where he and his and his colleagues used an (fMRI) machine to see which parts of dogs’ brains are active when we talk to them.

Mackenzie writes that the Emory University researchers were “looking for evidence that will tell us if dogs understand what words are, what words mean, and whether the areas of their brains that they use to process this information are similar to the areas we use.”

Berns writes: “We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands... Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”

And it’s important to remember that dogs really don’t understand language. What they’re actually good at is detecting patterns of behavior and verbal cues. For instance, if you get up from the couch and go toward the front door, it’s quite likely that your dog will wag his tail in hopes that you’re going to take him for a walk. All you’d have to do is grab the leash. You wouldn’t need words at all.

When We Talk to Dogs, Do They Feel Something or Understand Something?

To find out more, two research groups used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) to see which parts of dogs’ brains are active when we talk to them. They are looking for evidence that will tell us if dogs understand what words are, what words mean, and whether the areas of their brains that they use to process this information are similar to the areas we use.

The first step toward asking these questions was training the dogs to lie still in the MRI machine without restraint — something that even people struggle with. If you have ever had an MRI, you can see why. The process is loud, claustrophobic, and long. And while the scanner is doing its thing, analyzing the brain, even slight movement can ruin the data. So the dogs in these studies learn to tolerate all of these challenges one by one, until they are ready for the real thing. Even this first step is a big breakthrough — most MRI studies in animals require that they are sedated or restrained, which adds a level of stress that can make interpreting data from these studies difficult.

A research group based in Budapest used this training technique where they talked to 13 dogs while the dogs were in the MRI scanner, unrestrained and happy. The Researchers played them a recording of a trainer either praising them or saying neutral words, and then repeating each type of word either in a praising tone or a neutral tone.

The results—published in Science in 2016—were astounding. The researchers reported that dogs process words and their tone independently and on different sides—or hemispheres—of the brain. Moreover, they found that emotional cues like tone were processed on the right side of the brain, while words were processed on the left side, just like in humans. Because the left side of the dog’s brains responded to praise words even when said in a neutral tone, the researchers concluded (quite wrongly, of course) that dogs may possess some ability to understand the meaning of words. But in order for the dog to find praise rewarding, the word meaning and tone needed to match — only praising words said in a praising tone activated reward areas in the dog’s brains.


This was huge news in the field of language processing, especially because it was previously thought that only humans showed a left hemisphere bias for speech processing. It was also big news to the world of dog lovers. The ensuing media explosion was full of articles claiming that science has proved that your dog really understands what you're saying!

But wait a minute: an erratum, published six months after the paper reveals that the researchers mixed up the sides of the brain in their scans. So instead of dogs showing a human-like left hemisphere bias for language processing, they actually showed a bias toward processing language on the opposite side of their brains. Which could actually mean that dogs don’t process language like humans do, if at all.

Pseudo Words

In fact, the research group in Atlanta found that dogs process language much differently than we do. One aspect of their study involved lexical processing—the ability to tell words from pseudo words—arrangements of syllables that resemble words but have no meaning. In humans, activation of speech processing areas is typically higher when hearing a real word than a pseudo word. But in dogs, the region of their brains that was active when they heard a word they knew was actually more active when they heard a pseudoword. Dogs, then, may be more biased toward processing novel sounds, having nothing to do with any kind of linguistic ability..

The Atlanta researchers also found that the regions of the dog’s brains active during their tasks were more closely associated with actions than typical language processing regions in humans. This means that while dogs do seem to show a very small level of possible lexical processing, it takes place in a way that may be fundamentally different than the way we do. Instead of a having a symbolic representation of words, dogs may associate words (i.e., verbal cues) with actions.

One Caveat

One takeaway from these studies is that we still have a lot to learn about language processing. But one important caveat to consider: what fMRI actually measures is blood flow. When fMRI tells us that blood flow to an area of the brain is increased, we interpret that as an increase in neuronal activation in the region. But it doesn’t give us information about the type of neurons that are active, their underlying computational properties, or how they connect to and interact with other areas if the brain. And while in humans this can be paired with linguistic studies to get a more in-depth picture of how we understand language, it’s hard for us to say exactly what (and if) a dog imagines when we say the word ball.


"Life Is an Adventure, Where Will Your Dog Take You?"

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.