Summary: A recent study highlights that dogs are more receptive to speech directed specifically at them, especially when spoken by women. Using fMRI scans on trained family dogs, the study discovered that the canine brain responds more strongly to dog- and infant-directed speech than to regular adult speech.
The findings suggest that dogs have a unique sensitivity to exaggerated prosody, particularly evident in the female voice. This neural sensitivity may have developed during domestication and provides insights into how speech cues influence dogs.
Dog auditory brain regions showed heightened responses to speech directed at them, especially if spoken by women, implying a unique neural sensitivity in dogs.
The study is the first of its kind to provide neural evidence that dogs are particularly attuned to the speech directed at them.
The exaggerated prosody typical of female speech to dogs does not reflect patterns found in dog-dog communication, suggesting dogs may have developed this sensitivity during their domestication.
Source: Eötvös Loránd University
Dogs show greater brain sensitivity to the speech directed at them than to adult-directed speech, especially if spoken by women, according to a new study in Communications Biology.
By conducting an fMRI study on trained dogs, Hungarian researchers at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, the Research Centre for Natural Sciences and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network revealed exciting similarities between infant and dog brains during the processing of speech with exaggerated prosody.
When communicating with individuals having limited linguistic competence (such as infants and dogs), to grab and maintain their attention, we speak with a specific speech-style characterized by exaggerated prosody.
Infant-directed speech is very important as it helps kids’ healthy cognitive, social and language development. So no surprise that infant brains are tuned to this speech style. But are dog brains also sensitive to the way we speak to them?
To answer this question, Hungarian researchers measured dog brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the MRI, trained, conscious family dogs listened to dog-, infant-, and adult-directed speech recorded from 12 women and 12 men in real-life interactions.
“Studying how dog brains process dog-directed speech is exciting, because it can help us understand how exaggerated prosody contributes to efficient speech processing in a nonhuman species skilled at relying on different speech cues (e.g. follow verbal commands).” – Anna Gergely, co-first author of the study explains.
The study shows that dog auditory brain regions responded more to dog- and infant-directed than to adult-directed speech, which is the first neural evidence that dog brains are tuned to the speech directed specifically at them.
Interestingly, dog- and infant-directed speech sensitivity of dog brains was more pronounced when the speakers were women and was affected by voice pitch and its variation.
These results suggest that the way we speak to our dogs does matter, and that their brain is specifically sensitive to the exaggerated prosody typical to the female voice.
“What makes this result particularly interesting is that in dogs, as opposed to infants, this sensitivity cannot be explained by either ancient responsiveness to conspecific signals or by intrauterine exposure to women’s voice.
“Remarkably, the voice tone patterns characterizing women’s dog-directed speech are not typically used in dog-dog communication – our results may thus serve evidence for a neural preference that dogs developed during their domestication.
“Dog brains’ increased sensitivity to dog-directed speech spoken by women specifically may be due to the fact that women more often speak to dogs with exaggerated prosody than men.” – explains Anna Gábor, co-first author of the study.
Dog brains are sensitive to infant- and dog-directed prosody
When addressing preverbal infants and family dogs, people tend to use specific speech styles. While recent studies suggest acoustic parallels between infant- and dog-directed speech, it is unclear whether dogs, like infants, show enhanced neural sensitivity to prosodic aspects of speech directed to them.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging on awake unrestrained dogs we identify two non-primary auditory regions, one that involve the ventralmost part of the left caudal Sylvian gyrus and the temporal pole and the other at the transition of the left caudal and rostral Sylvian gyrus, which respond more to naturalistic dog- and/or infant-directed speech than to adult-directed speech, especially when speak by female speakers.
This activity increase is driven by sensitivity to fundamental frequency mean and variance resulting in positive modulatory effects of these acoustic parameters in both aforementioned non-primary auditory regions. These findings show that the dog auditory cortex, similarly to that of human infants, is sensitive to the acoustic properties of speech directed to non-speaking partners.
This increased neuronal responsiveness to exaggerated prosody may be one reason why dogs outperform other animals when processing speech.