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Can animals really understand human communication?

01 Mar 17
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Research has finally begun to show what pet owners have been saying for years: my pet understands when I talk to it. While it’s mostly dog and cat owners that claim their dog or cat understands them, research not only confirms that statement – to an extent – but it also shows that it’s not just domesticated animals that show this ability. On the other hand, any animal, no matter how sophisticated or intelligent, will not be able to understand human communication without training with an animal whisperer.

Today, we will be taking a look at a few cases where horses, cats, and dogs, demonstrated the ability to understand human communication.

Horses were taught to signal temperature

Horses have been used in agriculture, sport, and other ways for centuries. Now, they seem ready to join the group of intelligent animals that can communicate by pointing at symbols.

A Norwegian horse breeder took on the task to teach the horses how to show whether they needed a blanket or not. During training, the horses were shown the difference between the three symbols on the board. The horses were praised and given a treat for each choice they made, and afterward, the horses were able to communicate their preference. By touching their muzzles to the board, the horses would communicate whether they were cold and needed a blanket, whether they were fine or whether they wanted the blanket off.

While the fact that the horses got trained isn’t that surprising, considering we’ve been training horses for various tasks for centuries, the training shows that horses can actually understand human communication much better than we previously thought.

Cats really do understand everything you say – but they don’t show it

The world today seems to be in a constant disagreement over which is the superior species: cats or dogs? One thing is for sure, the main behavioral difference between cats and dogs is that dogs can be trained, while cats aren’t. On the other hand, cat owners keep claiming that cats do understand, and now science has proven it.

Researchers from the University of Tokyo studied cats’ behavior. During the study, the pet cats heard several different voices without being able to see who was talking. The researchers discovered that the cats showed signs of recognizing their owners’ voices and reacted to them, even if they weren’t able to see their owners.

It led to the possibility that cats might actually understand more than dogs – but they don’t show it as a survival method. Any cat owner will tell you that when a cat is sick, injured, or generally not feeling well, they tend to hide until they feel better. That happens because in the wild, being sick can be seen as a weakness and attract predators, so cats have learned not show when they’re not feeling well. As an extension, it’s quite possible that your cats really does understand everything you say. They just hide it as a means of survival.

Dogs are just as intelligent as toddlers

Have you ever heard of Rico, the wonder collie?

Collies are among the brightest dog species. Originally raised as farm animals, collies have a greater intelligence than the average dog, and they excellently perform various tasks when trained. As such, it is not a surprise that Rico the wonder dog was able to remember and distinguish between 200 words – many of which were objects.

However, unlike cats, that seem to grasp human language and communication naturally, Rico and other wonder dogs were trained. Rico’s owner would say the name of the object – toy, banana, Frisbee – and Rico would wander around the house until he found and fetched said object. According to the study, Rico began fetching objects when he was ten months old, and he continues learning new words with relative ease.

While training is important, dogs can grasp the meaning of action words: sit, stay, lie down, etc. Moreover, while it’s not easy to train dogs, it can be done, but the truth goes a bit deeper.

In a different study, several dogs showed three distinct things. First, they were able to recognize praise told in a positive tone of voice. Second, when they heard praising words in a normal tone without the positive tone, they didn’t react. Third, they did respond to other words spoken in a positive tone, but they reacted the strongest when they heard praise in an upbeat tone. In other words, when you say “Good dog!” in a happy voice, your dog understands and feels as if you’ve given them a treat.

How communication works – and what dogs showed during the study

When we communicate with another person, both sides of our brain are working. The left side of our brains detects the words that are being said, while the right side of our brains flare as we analyze how something was said – emotion, inflection, and meaning.

During the study, the dogs’ brains were scanned, and it was recorded which side of their brain was active when the researchers spoke to them.

The study showed that dogs processed human speech much in the same way as humans do. When the dogs heard a familiar praise spoken in a happy tone of voice, both sides of their brain flared up in recognition. On the other hand, when they only heard the words without the happy emotion behind it, only the left side of their brain was active as they recognized the words. Also, when the dogs heard an unfamiliar praise in a friendly tone, only the right side of the brain was active – they knew the tone, but the dogs did not show any sign that they were affected by the words. Only when both sides of their brain flared up in recognition did the dogs demonstrate that they were happy hearing the words.

In conclusion, while wild animals, no matter which species, might be able to recognize and distinguish human communication and the human voice, individual species can be taught to do this. In fact, domesticated animals like cats, dogs, horses, even pigs and other farm animals as well, might be even easier to train due to their domestication.

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