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Monday, December 16, 2019

Your dog gets it

Dogs Understand Spoken Words Better than We Thought
By Science News Staff / Source

talking blah blah blah GIFDogs are able to listen to different people saying the same word and recognize it as the same word, ignoring the differences between speakers, and can discriminate between unfamiliar people by the sound of their voice alone, according to a new study published in the journal Biology Letters.

Root-Gutteridge et al show that the ability to spontaneously recognize both the same phonemes across different speakers, and cues to identity across speech utterances from unfamiliar speakers, is present in domestic dogs and thus not a uniquely human trait. 

“Until now, the spontaneous ability to recognize vowel sounds when spoken by different people was considered to be uniquely human,” said Dr. Holly Root-Gutteridge, a postdoctoral researcher with the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

“But many dog owners believe their dogs can learn a word from one person and recognize it when spoken by a second or third person.”

“We wanted to test if dogs can recognize the same phonemes — the little sounds that make up words — when spoken by different people, ignoring the differences in accent and pronunciation.”

Dr. Root-Gutteridge and colleagues from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the University of Sussex filmed the reaction of dogs when they heard recordings of men and women speaking a set of short words that sound similar to each other, such as had, hid, heard and heed.

“To do this, the dogs have to ignore cues which are used to identify people and perceive Sally’s ‘had’ to be the same word as Maggie’s ‘had,’ despite differences in their voices and pronunciation, and realize it is different to Jane’s ‘hid’,” Dr. Root-Gutteridge explained.

“Then we tested whether dogs could also recognize people — who they had never met — by their voices alone.”

Words were chosen that are not usually associated with commands, so the dogs’ reaction could not be due to training.

The dogs did not know the speakers, so were not responding to the sound of a voice they recognized, and they were not encouraged or rewarded with treats and attention.

The test results show that dogs can spontaneously recognize short words as the same when spoken by different people.

The dogs could tell the difference when a word with a slightly different vowel sound was introduced.
This spontaneous ability to differentiate words by subtle differences in vowel sounds has previously only been recorded in humans.

“The ability to recognize words as the same when spoken by different people is critical to speech as otherwise people wouldn’t be able to recognize words as the same when spoken by different people,” Dr. Root-Gutteridge said.

“This research shows that, despite previous assumptions, this spontaneous ability is not uniquely human and that dogs share this linguistic talent, suggesting that speech perception may not be as special to humans as we previously thought.”
Holly Root-Gutteridge et al. 2019. Dogs perceive and spontaneously normalize formant-related speaker and vowel differences in human speech sounds. Biol. Lett 15 (12); doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2019.0555