Do Dog's Understand Your Words?

Attention, dog owners! Your pets probably know when you’re praising them — and not just by the tone of your voice. New data suggest that dogs’ brains not only respond to the tone of human speech, but can also distinguish between positive and neutral words. The findings will be published in the 2 September issue of Science1.
The study “provides the first evidence from inside a dog’s brain that there’s processing that depends on the meaning of a word and not just the tone of voice in which it is said”, says Clive Wynne, a behavioural scientist who studies dogs at Arizona State University in Tempe.

There are few things which I remain convinced of in the face of current research, but one of them is that I feel we drastically underestimate the complexity of animal's thought processes and emotions.

Unsurprisingly, the boo birds have come out in relation to the study, highlighting that the sample size of 13 dogs is rather small. That said, it was a 7 month study, so while the sample size is small calling the external validity into question, the internal validity of the study is likely to be fairly strong. Really, the only truly scientific thing to do at this point would be to repeat the study and see if the fMRI results continue to highlight the dog's responding to the content of speech rather than just the tone.

The standard view has been that dog's develop to about the state of a human around 30 months old, and so feelings such as guilt, pride and shame are not in their emotional palate. As a pet owner and watcher of wildlife, this seems incredibly shortsighted. Anyone with a cat has watched as they have tried to do something crazy athletic, failed, and then slinked away to lick their non-physical wounds. I don't see how there's any way to describe that as anything but shame. 

People normally use the example of coming home to see their pet acting suspicious and are immediately aware that the pet has done something undesirable. The response is that the pet is actually just afraid of the impending punishment and doesn't feel guilt about what they've done. This seems like nonsense to me. First, you're really stretching the definition of fear there. Fear is generally viewed as an immediate reaction to a perceived threat. As a human, you describe an extended feeling of dread as anxiety. I don't hear people describe feeling fearful for anything more than a passing moment. So why do think that animals, processing the same chemicals in the same biological structures, have a completely different relationship to fear and are somehow able to sustain the emotion for hours at a time? 

Beyond that, as I shared in my example of the cat failing to pull off an acrobatic move, I've frequently watched animals exhibit the slinking around behavior for actions for which they have never been reprimanded. A step I feel we miss frequently when analyzing animal's cognitive abilities is the importance of framing the activity in a way that naturally appeals to them.

Here's an example, to test if dogs can feel jealousy researchers had two dogs respond to "shake" commands and then gave only one of the two of them a treat. Shortly after, the one not receiving a treat stops responding to the command. Naysays point out this could easily just be the dog responding to a lack of positive reinforcement. Honestly, this might totally be true.

But here's the rub, shaking hands is absolutely not a natural behavior for dogs. There is absolutely no reason for them to have any emotional reaction to this staged event. In that example of a pet leaving a mess in your house while you're gone, again, the frustrations of this action do not have any relationship to the pet's life. My pet is not forced to deal with the stain on the floor and the difficulties of extracting it, so yeah, they don't feel guilt about it because it's meaningless in their lives.

The beauty of the cat example is that its highlighting something which cats intrinsically seem to value, their athletic prowess. Cats value their finesse themselves, and so they can feel complex emotions in relation to their performance.

If we had to try and prove that human's feel emotions we would also find it extraordinarily difficult. Emotions can be very complex, especially the ones which are not immediate responses. Anger, fear, joy and sadness are all pretty easy to create in a static situation. If you tried to artificially make someone jealous you would probably find it rather difficult to create a repeatable situation that produced envy in various people. If you rewarded one person for responding to simple command and not another, its extremely likely the snubbed party would not immediately feel jealous. On the other hand, if you've been working towards a promotion for years only to see it handed to someone else, then you will almost certainly see signs of jealousy.

Similarly with my pets, I've seen them become jealous and they are absolutely not situations I could recreate. The one that most immediately comes to mind was when my cat was acting kind of goofy one night and I friend and I were laughing hysterically at her behavior. The dog, used to being the center of our attention, was none to pleased at being upstaged, and jumped up, pushed the cat out of the way, and started doing some bizarre jig in front of us. I have laughed at my cat's antics hundreds of times and my dog has never responded quite so vigilantly. Emotionally, I can feel that the situation was rather special, but I can't really put into words why, and there's no way I could produce a repeatable experiment to verify the results.

We used to argue that only human's could use tools. Then we said that some other primates can use tools, then a few species of birds, than a few more. Recently, bees were even found to be able to use tools. Turns out, the biggest factor in finding out if animals can use tools is to figure out a way to design an experiment that appeals to the creature in question. If bees tried to test my attention span and spacial abilities by seeing how long I could focus on their waggle dances and then go off and find the source of pollen they were so enthusiastically gyrating about, they would certainly conclude that human's were unable to pay attention and make spatial diagrams in their heads.

If we ever do find a way to communicate more efficiently with animals, I'm pretty sure we'll find that they are exceedingly complex creatures who don't have the advantages of opposable thumbs combined with vocal chords which have allowed us to share knowledge so elegantly. If every human was forced to literally recreate the wheel because no one could manufacture a permanent structure due to a lack of an ability to grasp objects, I bet a huge portion of humans would never stumble across the elegance of a wheel.

I can count off numerous physical abilities that aid us in our pursuit of knowledge. I am unable to name any biological advantages humans have in regards to emotions. While some of our emotions are likely tied to the complexity of our social interactions due to spoken language, I think its silly to think that most of the emotions aren't able to be duplicated in the animal kingdom. From an evolution stand point, even the oldest estimates place the development of language as only 200,000, and possibly as recent as 60,000 years ago. It seems a tad presumptuous to assume that all of the biological tools for complex emotions have been slowly developed for almost a billion years and that they only really have come to fruition in a single species so recently.