California Forum

Does anyone still know how to listen? Yes.

Unlike humans, dogs have no emails, podcasts or video games to divert them.
Unlike humans, dogs have no emails, podcasts or video games to divert them.

I talk with our farm dogs a lot. I used to believe they listened out of blind and absolute love, seeking affection and the treats that I would reward them with for taking notice of my whining, complaining or philosophical questioning of life.

Farmers spend a lot of time by themselves. Dogs are my constant companions throughout the day. My wife says I need to get off the farm more often and she’s probably right.

New research has discovered more about how dogs seem to understand speech. They process words more like humans: They listen not only to the words but how you say them.

In the journal Science, co-author Attila Andics and his team studied 13 dogs while they listened to their trainer’s voice. Lying in a magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI), the animals heard neutral words like “yet” in a monotone voice and praise words like “well done” in an excited voice (and visa versa). The animals’ brains were scanned during these exchanges and they discovered pleasure centers vividly lit up with certain combinations of words and tone.

A reward pathway responded only with both praising terms and approving intonation. For these dogs, language skills matter.

This may also explain why our German shepherd mixed breed won’t come to me after digging in the flower garden – she detects anger in my voice. Or our aging pointer ponders if it’s really worth getting up to greet me, trying to decipher if my cheery voice will be followed up with a dog treat.

With speech, humans use their brains in two distinct ways. The right hemisphere listens for tone while the left hemisphere hears words. The combination of the two is how communication occurs. How we talk, as well as the words we use, affects our ability to convey an idea or express a thought.

Amazingly, dogs seem to share the same cognitive understanding of language. Words and intonation count.

Could this be why humans and dogs share a long evolutionary history of living in harmony? Dogs were domesticated but not necessarily as prey and food source. These creatures may have understood us much more than we believed. Maybe they knew bonding with us meant we would not eat them ... and vice versa?

In the MRI research experiment, they studied five golden retrievers, six border collies and a German shepherd. I wonder if the results would have been altered by other types of dogs.

According to some general observations, some characteristics of different breeds seem to be prevalent. Australian shepherds can be needy. Border collies, smart.

Terriers have high intensity. Boxers can be therapy dogs and sense emotions. Beagles seem child friendly. Bulldogs drool. Dalmatians and Jack Russells share boundless energy. A Chihuahua may be too nervous to study.

Do the various breeds respond differently to our words and inflections? I believe so – our different dogs know me too well. They have learned the art of manipulation.

In fact, one reason dogs were chosen for this research was that they would stay still while in the MRI machine. I can’t see a cat tolerating the loud pulsating machine for very long. Perhaps they’re too smart for such a test.

Actually, most cats in my life never seemed that interested in how my day was unfolding. Felines clearly have a mind of their own and most of the time, I had to listen to their needs.

This trait was verified when an animal handler confessed that it’s hard to train cats because when their stomachs are full, they will stop performing to gain a treat reward. Dogs are completely different. You could repeat and practice a trick or stunt over and over so long as there’s a reward at the end. According to cats, dogs don’t know any better.

I do wonder how domestication has shaped dogs to use the same cues as humans. Does that work with other creatures, such as horses?

My father farmed with mules. He proclaimed they were very good work creatures until they sensed something not right and just stopped in their tracks and would plod no further. Like when he hooked a grapevine with a French plow; rather than damaging or ripping out the vine, they sensed something was not right and stopped. Horses, my father claimed, just plowed right through it, yanking out the plant. I sometimes wish our modern day tractors could be implanted with the artificial intelligence of those mules when I do the vineyard plowing.

In the end, the multitude of distractions humans juggle daily may interfere with communication. Emails, testing, video games, online podcasts, sports programs constantly steaming in the background – all distract and deter.

Dogs, on the other hand, are not as diverted and so it appears they’re listening. They pay attention or at least know how to fool me and pretend to listen.

Perhaps that’s part of our connection between humans and canines. And now I’m wondering what they are really thinking as they listen to me with a tilted head and bright eyes?

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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