“Bark Speech” and other revelations…

From the August 2015 Issue of ShowSight – Click to Subscribe

More and more research studies coming out of well-respected universities, both here and abroad, confirm years of anecdotal evidence about canine communication.

Knowledgeable dog breeders/owners/trainers have long understood the meanings of the various vocalizations of their dogs. Dog people have also observed how their dogs differentiate between humans who are kind to their owners and those who are not. The following studies have added more details to our understanding and appreciation for all the amazing capabilities of our dogs. I call these studies “revelations”, because they “reveal” to the scientific community and to general public what we in the fancy have already grasped—plus some additional new surprises.


Dogs and humans share similar brain areas  dedicated to speech.

In the very first study to compare brain function between humans and a non-primate animal, scientists have discovered that dogs have areas in their brains dedicated to speech just as people do. Not only that, dog brains respond to acoustic cues of emotion, understanding differences between fear and anger or joy. These findings suggest to researchers that voice areas evolved at least 100 million years ago, the age of the last common ancestor of humans and dogs which was a small, insect eating rodent. The findings also help explain the close connection and communication that we have with our best friends in the animal kingdom.


At the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary, a team headed by Attila Andics studied the fMRI brain scans of 11 dogs as well as human participants. The scans captured both dogs’ and humans’ brain activities while the subjects listened to nearly 200 dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing. The scans revealed that similar areas in the brains activated at the sounds in both dogs and humans.


As Andics explains, “Dogs and humans share a similar social environment. Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the 
two species.”


Not only are their speech areas in the same areas of the brain, but also dog and human brains process emotionally loaded sounds similarly. In both species, an area near the primary auditory cortex lit up more with happy sounds than with  unhappy ones. This common response to emotion across species impressed the research team but is certainly no surprise to dog owners.


There were some differences, too, however. In the dogs, nearly half of all sound-sensitive brain regions responded more strongly to dog sounds rather than to human voices. That’s in contrast to humans whose voice areas in the brain responded overwhelmingly more to voices. No surprise there, since we depend so much more upon words for our communication than do dogs.


This Hungarian study is the first step toward understanding how it is that dogs can be so remarkably good at tuning into the feelings of their human owners. Andics concludes, “This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs. At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment.” What this study doesn’t explain is how dogs add the next element to their cognition—empathy. Dogs empathize with the feelings of their owners and either join in the fun or do their best to comfort and ease their owners’ sadness. There might never be a test developed for that phenomenon, but it’s a real part of dogs’ ability to bring healing on all levels to humans.


Scientists create software to analyze dog barks. The next study involves delving into what I call “bark-speech,” the ability of dogs to communicate through their voices on a much more complex level than many of us have ever imagined. Ethologists from the Universidad Politécnica in Madrid and the University of Budapest collaborated to create a computerized system based on statistical data from the barks of dogs to recognize specific characteristics in a dog, such as gender, age, individual situation, etc.


(below) This girl and her two dogs on a beach demonstrate the ease with which humans and canines can communicate and the rapport that distinguishes their relationship. (Wikipedia)


Let’s break that last sentence down into more digestible bites. First, the researchers utilized 8 dogs: 3 males and 5 females from the native Hungarian sheep herding breed, the Mudi. The dogs ranged in age from 1 to 10 years.


Each study dog registered 100 barks, totaling 800 barks for all the dogs involved in this research project. Their barks underwent computerized acoustic analyses. The dogs were placed in 6 different settings in which their barks were recorded digitally:


1. Alone, the owner tied the dog to a tree

2. Playing with a ball

3. Protective aggression, a person pretended to attack the dog’s owner

4. Receiving their food ration

5. In the company of a person who was a stranger to the dog

6. Getting ready to go out with the owner


By using various computational models that included pattern recognition, the researchers were successfully able to identify the dog’s gender over 85% of the time. Over 55% of the time, researchers identified the situation that the dog was in, while recognition that the dogs were of the Mudi breed was over 65%.


Further work on the deciphering of dog barks could provide great help to applied research. For example, the assessment of dog behavior is necessary in shelters, in training classes, in breed rescue organizations, in evaluating the suitability of service dogs, police dogs, etc. For any group needing more in-depth knowledge of a dog’s temperament, a software program which is able to identify fear, anxiety and levels of aggressiveness in a dog would be a great help.


This study also reveals the richness of the information within the “bark-speech” of dogs that we have only just begun to tap. Ethologists (those who study animal behavior) need to perform further studies on the communication within the barking of dogs. Yes, the information from this latest study could prove useful as another tool for those who work with dogs, but what about intra-species communication? Can this study become the basis for further research to understand how those same dog barks communicate information to other dogs? Now that’s a question that begs for answers!


Researchers prove that the enemy of your enemy is your dog!


A Japanese research team from Kyoto University has proven something that every fan of the old “Lassie” television series knows. Dogs do not like people who are mean to their owners. They will even refuse food offered by people who have snubbed their owner. A corollary revelation that emerges from the Japanese study is that dogs have the capacity to cooperate socially—a characteristic not found in many species—humans, of course and some primates. But ethologists are adding species to the list of those mammals that practice social cooperation: elephants, wolves and now dogs.

Kazuo Fujita, a professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto University and leader of the research team, tested three groups of 18 dogs using role plays in which their owners needed to open a box. In all three groups, the owner was accompanied by two people whom the dog did not know.


In the first group, the owner actively requested help from one of the two strangers. That person emphatically refused, while the third person remained neutral.


In the second group, the dog’s owner actively asked for help to open the box and one of the strangers obliges and willingly assists the owner. Again, the third person remained neutral.


In the third group, neither of the strangers reacted in any way to the dog’s owner requesting help with the box. Both remained neutral.


After the dog had observed the box opening scenarios, the dog was offered food by one of the two strangers in the room. Dogs that saw their owner being rebuffed were far more likely to choose food from the neutral observer and to ignore the offer from the person who had refused to help, Fujita related. The dogs that saw their owners being helped as well as the dogs whose owners did not interact with either person readily accepted treats from the strangers. The dogs clearly differentiated between the strangers who refused to help their owners and those who either helped or remained neutral. Fujita explained, “We discovered for the first time that dogs make social and emotional evaluations of people regardless of their direct interest.”


If the dogs had been reacting out of their own self-interest, as most scientists would have assumed, then the dogs would have taken treats from any of the strangers, but they didn’t. “This ability is one of the key factors in building a highly collaborative society and this study shows that dogs share that ability with humans,” Fujita added. Interestingly, this trait is present in children from the age of about three. It would seem that the social collaboration which is so necessary for a wolf pack to survive has remained within dogs. We humans are their pack now, so they look out for us and snub anyone who doesn’t treat us well.


One more layer to this phenomenon lies within many dogs’ ability to warn us about people that might not be good for us. I don’t mean that the person might be a rapist or a serial killer— nothing that extreme—but someone of questionable character. During my dating years in high school, we had a Boxer with the uncanny ability to identify those boys that I should not date. She always accompanied me to the door to greet a prospective date. If she wagged her tail and grinned, the boy was O.K., but if her body tensed and she rumbled quietly in a low growl, the guy was trouble. She was unerringly accurate in her assessment of young men and I depended upon her judgement. I have heard similar tales from other dog owners—enough anecdotes to know that something very real is going on here. As one ethologist rightly claimed, “One hundred anecdotes equals evidence”.


So how do dogs KNOW which people we should avoid? What is the information that our dogs sense and we don’t? How do they decide that they need to place their bodies protectively between us and this suspect person?


As you can see from these studies, scientists are just beginning to ask the right questions about how dogs think and feel. The answers that they are obtaining open the door to much deeper questions—questions that science may or may not be able to answer. There may always be parts of our dogs that remain unknowable—some primeval, secret places within them that no experiment can reveal.


Such mysteries only serve to make us value and treasure even more the relationships that we forge with them!


(below) Spanish and Hungarian ethologists used Mudis for their study. The Mudi is one of Hungary’s native breeds used to herd sheep. Similar to other sheep herding breeds, the Mudi use their barking as a tool to help them control the flocks. (Wikimedia)


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