Dog owners can attest that communication is vital to a healthy relationship with their canine companions, but how? It seems that humans and dogs can communicate in a way that transgresses the language barrier between the two species (give it a try – watch this video and see if you can interpret the meanings behind the barks towards the end of the clip). Throughout history, dogs have developed alongside human society and presently, have become one of our most popular animal companions, but what is the scientific basis that drives the bond between humans and dogs?
Earlier research has demonstrated through eye-tracking technology that dogs’ communicative abilities with people are socially comparable to human infants. The experiment illustrated the dog’s capabilities in understanding our intentions to communicate with them through verbal cues and eye contact. Although this is interesting to prove through the technological advancement of eye-tracking, the conclusions are not groundbreaking to what we already know; dog owners can easily understand this through their daily interactions with their canine companions.
More recently, however, a study from the Cell Press Journal reveal the similarities in the physical regions of the brain responsible for processing social communication in humans and dogs through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. In this experiment, human participants and dogs were given the same auditory samples of human and dog vocalizations related to different emotions, and nonvocal sounds. The results from fMRI showed similarities in the triggered “voice areas” of the dog and human brains, although expectedly these areas were triggered more by the voices from their own species (i.e., humans responded more strongly to human voices, and dogs responded more strongly to dog vocalizations). Additionally, dogs and humans show similar brain responses to the emotional aspects behind the human and dog vocalizations, such as those associated with cries and whining.
The video above summarises findings of the study that was performed, and even includes an interview with Atilla Andics, one of the leading scientists in this study.
These findings not only demonstrate that dogs can recognize human voices as communicative cues, but it also suggests that they are able to understand the emotions tied to the voices. From this study, we can also understand why humans are able to interpret a dog’s emotions and needs through its barks and vocalizations. This similarity in the locations and brain mechanisms related to processing of social information allows dogs and humans for mutual understanding. Given the fact that dogs and humans are both social creatures, it seems reasonable that these brains developed in such similar ways. Factor in the domestication of dogs going back over tens of thousands of years, and this special interspecies bond does not seem so difficult to understand anymore. Perhaps this serves as scientific evidence to those who argue whether or not a dog truly is Man’s best friend.
– Leslie Chiang