Dogs process speech in the same way as humans do. Both dogs and human brains process the intonation and meaning of the words spoken, according to a new study.

Hungarian researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a test that uses powerful magnets and radiowaves to detect changes associated with blood flow, on awake dogs. They found that dogs process the voice’s intonation in their brain’s lower subcortical regions, and recognized its actual meaning in cortical regions, like humans.

“Exploring speech processing similarities and differences between dog and human brains can help a lot in understanding the steps that led to the emergence of speech during evolution,” said Anna Gabor, study author at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary.

“Some years ago, we discovered that dog brains, just as human brains, separate intonation and word meaning – but is the hierarchy also similar?” she added. “To find out, we used a special technique this time – we measured how dog brain activity decreases to repeatedly played stimuli.”

Dogs are known to have a sensitivity to human communicative signs. If we praise dogs with a high toned voice, they may notice it as positive or happy.

Dogs can respond to words and phases, such as sit, wait or heel, lie down, but the researchers have proven they can still recognize the words even if their humans changed the intonation.

The study results show that dogs brains, just like that of humans’, process speech heirarohically, which means intonation at lower stages mostly in the subcortical regions, while known words are processed at higher stages in cortical regions.

“Although speech processing in humans is unique in many aspects, this study revealed exciting similarities between us and a speechless species,” said study author Attila Andics at Eotvos Lorand University. “What our results really shed light on is that human speech processing may also follow this more basic, more general hierarchy.”

This study has been published in Scientific Reports.

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