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Dogs Are As Smart As We Think They Are

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SMART DOG
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By Erik Ryken

Have you ever tried fooling a dog into getting excited for the wrong thing? Perhaps testing their instincts by offering something boring to the tune of a tasty treat? It turns out that while they may very well be excited by the amped up sound of your voice, they are most likely on to your trick.

The Family Dog Project, at Budapest's Eötvös Loránd University, recently publicized their finding that -- just like humans -- dogs process word meanings in their left hemisphere and they process intonation in their right hemisphere. Although they are unable to speak the words, dogs in family settings are exposed to enough speech that they can make sense of what words are representing, independent of their intoned meanings.

In essence, this means that if we try to offer a pooch something unfamiliar from the fridge by using the same tone of voice as we would for a known treat, they will recognize the deception. We won't be fooling them with a little piece of broccoli, no matter how excited we are about its nutritional benefits. It just won't offer the same excitement as a strip of bacon or a slice of sausage.

Similarly, the effects of our tone of voice have proven to be more rewarding than food. In another study by The Dog Project at Emory University, researchers found clear evidence that dogs prefer praise over food as a reward for completing tasks. Not all dogs behave this way, however. Knowing that some dogs prefer social praise while others prefer edible treats could be helpful in determining what kinds of roles are best suited to dogs working jobs in therapy, assistance, and rescue.

So, does this mean dogs can read our thoughts? Not exactly. It does prove that they are more adept at interpreting speech than is often believed. As for science, the discovery that dogs and humans have similar neurological responses to language offers new potential insights into human cognition.

The primary goal of the Family Dog Project is specifically to research human-dog relationships through cognitive and behavioural studies with an interest in how this long-standing bond has shaped our dogs and our selves. Research topics have spanned from the ancestry of dogs -- comparing them with present-day wolves and how the two interact differently with humans -- to studies relevant to designing behaviour and sociality in robotics.

The technology used in each of these studies is MRI brain scanning. One feature of this method is the requirement that the research participant be patient enough to rest briefly in the confines of a scanning bed for about 30 minutes. Not all pups are thrilled about this, understandably, so dogs are selected based on their willingness to hold a down position for this length of time.

For those interested, here is a video showing how dogs are trained to sit through these studies without sedation or restraints.

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