For some, it will come as long-overdue proof that man’s best friend
is in fact the most sympathetic listener out there.
For others, it will just sound barking mad.
A new study into dogs’ brains has found that dogs respond to voices
in the same ways their owners do. Like humans, dogs have the brain
systems necessary to make sense of vocal sounds, and to process their
Attila Andics, of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, trained six
golden retrievers and five border collies to lie inside a scanner. He
asked 22 human volunteers to do the same, with considerably less
Both human and canine volunteers were played 200 different sounds.
These included a range of human emotional sounds – laughing and crying,
but no talking – and similar dog sounds, such as whining and playful
The resulting scans showed that a similar region in the brain was
activated when both dogs and people heard human voices.
Unsurprisingly, the voice-processing area of the human brain
responded most to human voices. The corresponding area of dogs’ brains
responded to dog sounds. But, in both animals, the activity in these
regions changed in similar ways in response to the emotional tone of
the sound. Both dogs and people were affected by crying humans and
“We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the
feelings of their owners, and we know a good dog owner can detect
emotional changes in his dog,” Dr. Andics said. “But now we begin to
understand why this can be.”
Similar activity has previously been observed in the brains of
monkeys, which last shared a common ancestor with humans 30 million
years ago. But this is the first time that such responses have been
observed in the brain of a non-primate. Humans and dogs shared a common
ancestor 100 million years ago.
Dr. Andics believes that his new finding will unleash new
possibilities. “It’s not only dogs and humans,” he said. “We probably
share this function with many other mammals.”
But others believe that Dr. Andics is barking up the wrong tree.
Monique Udell, of Oregon State University, points out that one cannot
assume that dogs and humans experience sounds in the same way, just
because they exhibit similar brain activity. “We should take care to
recognize and value the unique perceptual and emotional worlds of each
species,” she said.
And Clive Wynne, of Arizona State University, believes that the
findings do not necessarily indicate evolutionary similarities: “The
brain is a highly plastic organ, and the dogs’ responses could just be
the result of a lifetime listening to human voices,” he said.
1. What is an MRI machine? Do you know what uses it has?
2. Why were the scientists surprised by their findings?
3. In your opinion, is this kind of research important? Explain your
4. Humans have had pets all through history. Why might this be?