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For many dog owners, it might seem that it doesn’t matter what you say to a dog, it’s how you say it. You can get a dog stoked about anything, even going to the vet, if you say it like you’re really excited about it.
But a new study in the journal Science suggests that’s not the case. It seems that dogs are able to understand both intonation and meaning when they listen to their trainers. In other words, they heard you say the word “vet,” and they are not thrilled about it.
To do the study, researchers trained a bunch of very obedient dogs to lie completely motionless in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine while their trainers said a variety of words to them. Some of the words were positive like “good boy” and “clever,” and some of the words were neutral like “if” and “yet.” The researchers also think these words were meaningless to the dogs.
While the dogs were hearing these words, the researchers looked at blood flow in their brains. They saw that just like humans, the dogs seemed to process the meaning of the words on the left hemisphere of the brain, and the intonation of the words on the right hemisphere.
Interestingly, it was only when the intonation and the meaning matched up that the dogs seemed to feel praised. If the trainer said a neutral word in a positive way, the dogs didn’t react with enthusiasm. But if the dog said a positive word in a positive way, “Good boy!” then the dog’s reward center also activated.
So if you think it’s funny or beneficial to your dog to act like you’re going to the park when you’re really going to the vet, maybe it’s time to stop. He sees through your clever ruse.
H/T: Washington Post
Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.