Recent studies show that dogs are more tuned into our speech and emotions than we previously knew…
Does your dog listen to every word you say?
Mine does. Chilli dog appears to hang on my every word, cocking her head adorably to one side, giving me more attention than any one of my family and friends. Perhaps that’s one of the main reasons we like dogs.
As we understand more and more about dogs, their behaviour and their relationship with humans, it is perhaps not surprising to learn in recent studies that dogs are able to relate closely to human vocalisations.
Dogs distinguish between normal speech and emotional content
One recent study played speech sounds to dogs, in both ears. Like humans, dogs orient their heads towards sounds based on what they are hearing. When the dogs heard meaningful words they tended to turn to the right. When they heard emotional cues, most dogs turned to the left. Like us, the left brain processes the meaning of the words while the right processes emotional content.
Perhaps this is not surprising since dogs have evolved alongside humans, as our language was also evolving. Some dogs have been known to recognise over 300 words!
Should this affect the way to speak to our dogs?
We should be mindful that our dogs are picking up on our words and our tones. Adding an emotional cue to your speech will make your dog respond with emotion themselves. So, if you need your dog to be excited, show some emotion! If you need a degree of seriousness, perhaps obedience, talk to their right ear. And if you’re whispering sweet nothings to your canine companion, do so in their left ear. The sounds entering here will be processed by the right side of their brain, perceiving emotion.
Are dogs really empathic?
Dogs cheer us up. They appear to sense our moods and often make us feel better when we have the blues. All owners who have a close bond with their dog know this. More amazingly, however, dogs have been shown to respond to a baby’s cry. Just like us! When we hear a baby crying, we become alert and our cortisol – stress hormone – levels rise. Recent studies have shown that dogs respond the same way. Canine cortisol levels rose when listening to a baby cry, as opposed to listening to them babble.
The more we find out about dogs, the more closely they appear to be bonded to humans. I do wonder, however, what will happen when I whisper into my cat’s ears!
Note: Head tilting in dogs can be a sign of physiological distress. Please seek veterinary care if your dog tilts their head often, unassociated with listening to nearby sounds.
Canine orientation to human speech: research paper
Canine response to baby crying: research paper