Say “sit!” to your dog, and—if he’s a good boy—he’ll likely plant his rump on the floor. But would he respond correctly if the word were spoken by a stranger, or someone with a thick accent? A new study shows he will, suggesting dogs perceive spoken words in a sophisticated way long thought unique to humans.
The way we pronounce words changes depending on our sex, age, and even social rank. Some as-yet-unknown neural mechanism enables us to filter out differences in accent and pronunciation, helping us understand spoken words regardless of the speaker. Animals like zebra finches, chinchillas, and macaques can be trained to do this, but until now only humans were shown to do this spontaneously.
In the new study, Holly Root-Gutteridge, a cognitive biologist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., and her colleagues ran a test that others have used to show dogs can recognize other dogs from their barks. The researchers filmed 42 dogs of different breeds as they sat with their owners near an audio speaker that played six monosyllabic, noncommand words with similar sounds, such as “had,” “hid,” and “who’d.” The words were spoken—not by the dog’s owner—but by several strangers, men and women of different ages and with different accents.