A new study indicates that our dogs may not only comprehend the tone in our voices but the words we say. I know that my greyhound understands the word “snow.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Anyone who has lived with a dog at any time in his or her life knows that they are masters at reading us; they understand by the tone in our voices whether we’re angry, sad, happy or excited. Our dogs then usually mirror our own moods.

While we recognize that dogs intently watch us and listen to how we say things, we generally assume that they have no idea what our words mean—with the exception of perhaps a few phrases, such as “go outside” or “car ride.” If you say something negative to your dog but express it in a high-pitched, excited voice, you would probably assume that your dog would still wag its tail.

However, the results of a recent study that was published online in the November 26, 2014, edition of Current Biology indicate that dogs do pay attention to the meanings of our words and that they process that information in a different part of the brain from where they process emotional cues in speech.


When dogs hear words that have meaning for them, about 80 percent will turn their heads to the right. When they hear commands containing just emotional cues, most dogs turn their heads to the left.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in England brought 250 dogs into their lab. An audio speaker, which played the command to “come,” was placed on either side of each dog’s head. In the first round of the experiment, the command had both meaningful words and emotional cues in it.

Subsequently, the spoken command was manipulated. In some instances, all of the inflections in the recorded voice were removed. In others, inflections were kept but the words were removed (or replaced with gibberish).

For each command that a dog received, the researchers recorded which way the dog turned its head: toward the left speaker or toward the right speaker. Even though both speakers played the same sounds, when the dogs heard commands that had meaningful words in them, about 80 percent of the animals turned to the right. When they heard commands with just emotional cues in them, most dogs turned to the left.

My dog Chic is a master at reading facial expressions—and demonstrating a few of her own. ©John T. Andrews

The researchers involved in the experiment say that the results show that dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences. They also demonstrate that a dog’s brain breaks up speech into two parts: emotional cues and word meanings. The brain then processes these two elements on different sides: emotional cues on the right; meaning of words on the left—opposite to the way the dogs turned and a bit similar to how humans process speech.

These findings have implications for making us better at being dog communicators: tell all the emotional things you want your dog to hear in his left ear, but give commands toward his right ear.

This groundbreaking study gives us insight into how dogs listen to us. But we’re all already pretty familiar with how our dogs see us. Watch this 30-second, adopt-a-pet commercial from LA Animal Services, which is shown below. It might remind you of how lucky you are to have a best friend who constantly sees you only in the best light.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,