Owners who claim their pets understand everything they say may be right, according to recent study findings from the UK. Researchers at the University of Sussex, School of Psychology show that dogs actually process speech in a similar way to humans.

According to the study, published in the November 26, 2014, edition of Current Biology, mammal communication researchers tested more than 250 dogs to see how they responded to a set of spoken commands. They found that, like humans, dogs use different parts of the brain to process the verbal components of a familiar sentence and the emotion or intonation of the speaker.

“Humans mainly use the left hemisphere of their brain to process the verbal content of speech, and the right hemisphere to process the characteristics of the voice, whether it’s familiar, male or female and its emotional content”, says Researchers Victoria Ratcliffe. The authors report that previous studies have shown that other mammals also have hemispheric biases when processing their own species’ vocalizations, but no one had ever looked at whether biases existed in domesticated animals in response to the different components of human speech.

The results showed that when the speech was meaningful for the dogs (a familiar command), but the voice features such as gender or intonation had been attenuated or removed, the dogs tended to use the left hemisphere of their brain. In addition, if the command did not have gender or intonation features removed, but was in a foreign language, or if the phonemes were put into the wrong order, then the sound ceased to be meaningful to the dog, and the reverse bias was observed. The study suggests that dogs pay attention to the verbal content of human speech and perceive it in a way that broadly parallels human perception.

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