When owners give their dog a command, it will usually follow through if it has been trained to do so. But will the dog answer correctly if the same command is voiced by a stranger or someone with a strong accent? Research carried out by specialists has shown that animals easily perceive words pronounced in a sophisticated way, which has long been considered unique to humans.
The way we pronounce words ourselves can vary depending on our age, gender, and even social status. Some not yet fully understood neural mechanism allows us to filter out differences in different accents or pronunciations, helping to understand words regardless of the speaker. Animals (dogs, chinchillas, macaques) can also be trained to do this, but people still did it spontaneously.
Cognitive biologist Holly Root-Gutteridge, from the University of Sussex in Brighton, USA, and her colleagues conducted a test that others have used to prove that dogs can recognize their relatives by their barking. The researchers filmed 42 dogs of various breeds as they were with their owners next to an audio speaker that played six monosyllabic, non-command words with similar sounds, such as “hid”, “had” and “who’d”. All words were pronounced not by pet owners, but by several unfamiliar men and women of different ages and with different accents.
Dogs tilted their ears forward or moved towards the speaker whenever they heard a word with a different vowel sound. According to the researchers, this indicates that the animals found a difference. For example, one of the Border Collie dogs quickly turned around and listened intently when one of the women first spoke the word “had.” But, when the same word was repeated by other women with different accents, the animal lost all interest in him. And this indicates that the dog knows – they all say the same thing. The moment the speaker pronounces a new word, for example, “hid”, the quadruped again revives, but his attention immediately switches if the new voice returns to the word “had”. Collectively, these responses suggest that dogs recognize words independently of the speaker.
This study examined the response of dogs to words that are not commands or requests. However, due to the nature of the test, scientists cannot conclusively state that the animals understood the meaning of these words. Nevertheless, the work clearly demonstrates that the dogs “listen” to us.
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