When you talk to your dog, he or she is listening to what you say in a surprisingly sophisticated and even human-like manner, a new study in Britain suggests.
While past studies have provided strong evidence that dogs can respond to diverse parts of human speech, the new study at the University of Sussex has provided more insight into the working of the canine brain, the researchers say.
As an example, they say, dogs appear capable of processing multiple parts of human speech simultaneously, using different parts of the brain to process the verbal components and the emotion or intonation of the speaker.
Study leader Victoria Ratcliffe is quick to point out that doesn't mean that dogs actually understand what their owners are saying.
However, she says, the findings strongly suggest, "dogs may dissociate (separate) and process speech components in a way that is broadly comparable to humans."
In the study, the researchers looked at how dogs responded to human speech, hoping to understand how dogs' brains were involved in processing the content or tone of the speech.
They did this by manipulating the sound; sometimes it was stripped of the qualities of the human voice, to emphasize the meaning of words, while at other times the emotional tone was exaggerated.
The dogs' reactions to the difference suggested different areas of the brain were at work.
"This is particularly interesting because our results suggest that the processing of speech components in the dog's brain is divided between the two hemispheres in a way that is actually very similar to the way it is separated in the human brain," researcher David Reby says.
Humans respond to both what is said -- the content -- and to how it is said -- an emotional tone -- and dogs apparently are capable of something similar, Ratcliffe says.
Any dog owner is likely to agree with the study's findings of dogs' ability to understand what is said to them, although that doesn't mean they're using language as we do, says Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at Tufts University who was not involved in the Sussex study.
"No, dogs are not going to read books or compose sonnets," he says. "But they can take quite a bit out of what we're saying. They are picking up certain sounds that have meaning for them. They're also picking up the tenor of what we're saying.
"I'd say it's a testament to their abilities as sentient beings," Dodman added.