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Is Your Pet a Polyglot?

February 12, 2019

Many pet owners speak in multiple tongues and some have worked with their canine friend to communicate basic commands in different languages. However, it may not be as simple as claiming Fido to be a polyglot just because they respond in the same way to different sounding words with the same meaning. Fact is you dog is trying hard to communicate with you, especially as their pack leader. But, dogs do not process English or any other human-created language. They do, however, recognize words, cadence, and tone as command cues. Moreover, whether communicating with humans or other animals, a lot of dog language is visual, not verbal.

Veterinary studies have shown that the average dog, when properly trained, can understand about 165 different words or basic commands, such as sit, stay or go. Since dogs have no need to bother with recognizing spoken languages as a language, it allows them to be trained to respond to a number of sounds and body movements. For example, hunting dogs and agility dogs are often trained to respond to clickers, whistles, and hand gestures. In fact, a dog belonging to a deaf pet owner can be adequately trained to respond to sign language and simple hand signals.  Unfortunately, as language speakers, we tend to think spoken words where your dog is processing sounds, intonations and visual cues.

Researchers recruited over a dozen family dogs for a study conducted at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. The results were published in the Journal of Science. The subjects were trained to sit in a MRI scanner to listen to a series of sounds. When they heard a familiar sound, it lit up the left hemisphere of the brain (same as humans). The tone of spoken command, on the other hand, triggered the left hemisphere of the dog's brain suggesting an ability to assign meaningfulness to a word. So, positive attention resulted only when words were spoken in a positive tone. 

Overall, dogs are relatively uncomplicated creatures who actively seek to communicate with their owners in an attempt to figure things out. In other words, a dog expresses its instinctual needs as well as possess an obvious desire to please its human. It is important to your pet's safety that they are properly trained to recognize a handful of important commands. Just remember, they are also listening for your tone and will respond as quickly to visual cues as they do to verbal instructions, especially if it has something to do with eating, going to the park, or taking time to play.

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