Dogs know how to distinguish between laughter, yawning or coughing of humans – Pets – Life

When we listen to the vocalizations of two different known animal species, we humans are able to differentiate the sounds based on who or what makes it. But does the same thing happen with dogs that hear the voices of their owners and the barking of their peers on a daily basis?

A team of researchers from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE, Budapest, Hungary) has asked this question and studied how dogs process different auditory signals. The results, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, reveal for the first time differences in pet responses to human and canine sounds.

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Hungarian scientists performed neurophysiological examinations through non-invasive electroencephalograms (EEG) to 17 dogs that participated in the work. In this way, they were able to record brain bioelectric activity in basal resting conditions and during various activations. So they could understand neural processing of auditory information in dogs.

“We reproduced various human and canine vocalizations to dogs that were lying down and alert while we recorded their brain activity using non-invasive electroencephalograms,” explains Anna Bálint, member of the ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group and first author of the research.

“This new EEG methodology was recently developed by Hungarian researchers based on human procedures and is completely painless for the subjects, unlike many other EEG paradigms used in animal studies,” reiterates the researcher.

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Differences between species and between sounds

To conduct the study, the dogs were offered positive reinforcement (food rewards), while the scientists applied electrodes to specific points on their heads and presented them with nonverbal human and canine vocalizations.

In the case of human sounds, the team had them listen to everything from laughter (positive) to yawns and coughs (neutral). Canine sounds ranged from playful barking (positive) to panting and sniffing (neutral).

“Analysis of the recorded EEG signals showed that the dog brain processes the vocalizations of the two species differently. It is the first time that this has been detected in this way in dogs”, confirms Huba Eleőd, doctoral candidate in the ELTE Department of Ethology.

In addition, this differentiation effect occurs very early, at 250 milliseconds, “so that the neural processing of human and canine sounds diverges already a quarter of a second after the start of the sound”, continues the scientist.

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Another important finding observed in the brain responses of dogs is that they are able to differentiate between positive and neutral vocalizations depending on the species. “So we have been able to experimentally demonstrate that the brain of dogs also responds to the emotional content of the sounds they hear”, highlights Márta Gácsi, principal investigator of the ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group.

“The main merit of these findings is that, using this methodology, we can learn new details of the neural functions of our four-legged friends and how they process acoustic signals from the world around them,” concluded Bálint.

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