How Much Does My Dog Understand?

Many of us have been caught talking to our dogs, but how much of what we say do they actually understand? Do they remember the things we've done together? Do our dogs love us, or just the food that we provide?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #256
Curious Frenchie dog

To test for episodic memory in dogs, their owners taught them a “do it” command which told the dogs to repeat an action, like jumping or touching an umbrella, after seeing their owner perform the action. Next, the owners trained their dogs to simply lie down after watching them perform the action. Finally, the owners threw in a twist. They performed an action so that their dog knew to lie down. Then, between one minute and one hour later, they commanded the dog to “do it.” So not only did the dogs have to remember what that action was, but they had to do it after not expecting their memory of the event to be tested.

The researchers found that in most cases, the dogs were able to recall the correct action, but that it was harder for them to remember the action after a longer delay if they weren’t expecting the memory test. The same is usually true for human memory and is why we make generally unreliable eye witnesses.

The results of the “do it” study suggest that dogs have something at least similar to episodic memory which suggests that “our dogs memories aren’t based simply on repetition and reward,” according to Brian Hare, a dog cognition expert at Duke University. This result could further mean that this type of memory did not evolve only in humans and primates.

Research from Emory University suggests that our dogs may in fact love us.

Does Your Dog Love You or Just Your Food?

So my dog may have a decent vocabulary and memory, but how much of this understanding extends to the abstract? Do dogs also have feelings and perhaps even love their owners back?

A research study led by neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University suggests that our dogs may in fact love us, at least as much as they love food. Like the Hungarian studies, the dogs were trained to sit still for MRI scans and were never restrained so that they were free to leave the scanner at any time. The dogs wear ear muffs to protect their sensitive hearing and given chin rests to make them more comfortable (and to help keep them still).

The tests run by Berns and his group are not all that different from similar studies attempting to understand the response of the human brain. The dogs were provided rewards in the form of hot dogs and verbal praise while the scientists monitored their brain activity. They found that 20% of the dogs had a stronger positive response to praise than they did to food, suggesting that the connection they felt with their human companions was at least as important, if not more.

Other studies have suggested that dogs know how to read our facial expressions, communicate jealousy, show empathy, and even enjoy television programs. As a species dogs have been domesticated for as long as 10,000-30,000 years so it is possible that being around us has affected their evolution. If that is the case, then they may have affected our evolution as well.

Until next time, this is Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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