Dogs are able to detect speech and distinguish between languages, new research suggests.
A brain imaging study appears to show the animals display different activity patterns when responding to a familiar and an unfamiliar language.
This is thought to be the first demonstration that a non-human brain can differentiate between languages.
When Laura Cuaya, first author of the study, moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eotvos Lorand University, she took her dog Kun-kun with her.
She had previously only spoken to him in Spanish.
Kun-kun and 17 other dogs were trained to lay motionless in a brain scanner, where they were played speech excerpts of The Little Prince in Spanish and Hungarian.
Before this, all of the participating dogs had only heard one of the two languages from their owners.
The animals were also played scrambled versions of the excerpts, to examine whether they were able to detect the difference between speech and non-speech at all.
Researchers found distinct activity patterns in the dogs’ brains when they compared responses to speech and non-speech.
They report this distinction was there independently from whether the stimuli originated from the familiar or the unfamiliar language.
However, there was no evidence dog brains would have a preference for speech over non-speech.
“Dog brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and non-speech,” Raul Hernandez-Perez, co-author of the study, said.
“But the mechanism underlying this speech detection ability may be different from speech sensitivity in humans – whereas human brains are specially tuned to speech, dog brains may simply detect the naturalness of the sound.”
The study showed for the first that “a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages”, Attila Andics, senior author of the study, said.
“It is exciting, because it reveals that the capacity to learn about the regularities of a language is not uniquely human.
“Still, we do not know whether this capacity is dogs’ specialty, or general among non-human species.
“Indeed, it is possible that the brain changes from the tens of thousands of years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case.
“Future studies will have to find this out.”
The study, conducted by researchers from the Department of Ethology, Eotvos Lorand University (Hungary) is published in NeuroImage.