Scientists Share The Human Phrases That Dogs Can Actually Understand

Most dog owners admit their furry friend is a great listener in times of loneliness. Complain about a co-worker or babble nonsense just to vent, and your pooch will be there, paws crossed, tail wagging. It’s a shame they don’t understand most of what you’re saying. Or do they?

Scientists wanted to know the differences between dog brains and human brains, specifically which human phrases a canine could truly understand. After crunching the data, these researchers may have found the answers — and proved why dogs are, in fact, such good boys!

The language divide between canines and humans hasn’t prevented a bond from forming between the two species; no one who meets a dog is surprised by the common phrase “man’s best friend.” But are we better at communicating with canines than we expected?

Sadie Colbert / Ellworth AFB

People often train their dogs to respond to phrases beyond the accepted “sit,” “stay,” and “roll over,” but these are not the only words a pooch might understand. Even a dog who never saw the inside of an obedience school picks up some new words.

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As it turns out, canines have a complex relationship with language and the words and phrases used by their human owners. A recent study in Frontiers in Neuroscience dedicated some time into understanding what exactly Fido knows.

ENIKO KUBINYI

These experts knew, of course, that dogs can learn many of the tricks we throw their way. Some better than others. But even the most simplistic of canines can manage to sit when given the proper motivation. Normally in the form of a treat.

Jake Cantrell / The Dahlonega Nugget

So dogs understand our commands on some level, but as the co-author of the study, Ashley Prichard, explained, “dogs don’t process language as humans” do. To find out how their brains interacted with words, the experts needed just a few tools.

Jordan Donohue

This study required the participation of 12 canines and their respective owners. The task of the owners was to teach their pups to retrieve a stuffed animal monkey appropriately named “monkey” or a rubber pig named “piggy.”

Emory University

After months of training, it was finally time to put the dogs to the test. The scientists used an MRI scanner to evaluate the reactions of the dogs processing systems. There were two parts to the MRI test.

Emory University

The owner would hold up the familiar piggy or monkey and say the familiar name. Then, they would hold up completely foreign and random object and speak gibberish to their dog. For example, owners held up a hat and said bobbu.

Because the dog in question was in the MRI machine the entire time, experts could observe their mental reactions to both kinds of linguistic situations. Results showed a massive brain-wave difference between the two scenarios.

Semantics Scholar

When a dog’s owner said the phrase they were familiar with, there was hardly any change in brain activity at all for the puppy patient. But when the owner used the gibberish term and random object, the dog exhibited a spike in activity. Experts were dumbfounded.

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The activity, which was specifically centered in the auditory processing regions of the brain, showed dogs understand language in the opposite way humans do. A similar experiment elaborated on that idea.

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That study showed humans light up for words we know and less for words we don’t. “The greater neural activation to pseudowords [gibberish] over the trained words in dogs is different than what is common in human language studies,” Prichard explains. So what does this mean?

ENIKO KUBINYI

Due to natural selection, modern domestic dogs are focused on pleasing their owners and receiving rewards based on positive behavior. So, they focus on understanding the gibberish word in order to please the human. But this wasn’t all the study showed.

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Another surprising deduction? Basic training practices — the guidelines we all work with to train our pooches — might be far from the best way to train your dog.

Megan Ann / Flickr

The most effective routes of communication are centered around visual and scent cues. “There really needs to be more research on how dogs think and perceive the world, not just how we humans think that they do,” Prichard says.

Neil Owen / Creative Commons

The idea of communicating without words seems completely impossible to us, but maybe relying on other senses will have your old dog performing all kinds of new tricks in no time. Nothing is more motivating than the all-powerful treat!

So many of us only know the surface details of our pets — their favorite toys and treats — but we don’t know what’s truly going on in their brains. Another study showed our pets could be in an undetectable state of mental unrest.

Believe it or not, it’s possible for ol’ Fido to be on the Autism spectrum. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists conducted a study in 2015 that discovered a connection between autism-like behaviors, like frenzied tail chasing, and genetic data.

Out of 132 bull terriers (55 tail-chasers, and 77 non tail-chasers), tail-chasing was more prevalent in males. Obsessive tail-chasing also occurred in pups with “fragile X syndrome.” It’s been estimated that between 15 and 60 percent of people with fragile X syndrome are on the autism spectrum.

@like.bullterrier / Instagram

2. Cats are pretty strange animals. They’re either chilling out on the sofa without a care in the world, or they seem to be anxious as all heck; there’s no in-between. If you’ve ever seen your pussycat excessively grooming, licking the same spot, or pacing, something might be wrong.

Vetted PetCare

Those types of OCD behaviors hint that your cat is bored, anxious, or possibly in pain. Scientists believe that these kinds of actions temporarily calm a kitty’s anxiety, as the brain releases pain-relieving chemicals during these behaviors. Even though they’re prima donnas, cats do need love and stimulation.

3. Considering horses were built to herd and run free, they shouldn’t spend a ton of time confined to tiny stables. Excessive boredom and anxiety can cause them to behave oddly and dangerously.

When these feelings plague them, horses will engage in “cribbing,” or chewing on wood, pacing, kicking the walls of their confined space, and biting. To avoid these anxiety-probed, self-harming actions, make sure your horse gets plenty of exercise.

4. As you can only imagine, being a military pup is a stressful gig. Just as it’s common for military veterans to experience post traumatic stress disorder, canine soldiers, too, display saddening behaviors related to PTSD after seeing action.

Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall

Dismally, dogs who return to the United States after a period in the Middle East are often euthanized immediately after showing signs of PTSD. Thankfully, progressive veterinarians are starting to create training methods to aid dogs in their mental health recovery. Dogs need therapy too!

5. You may notice a pattern in domesticated animals and what links them to depression, like being left alone in confined spaces for long periods. This is no different for pet birds, which are known to perch inside tiny cages in the middle of suburban kitchens.

Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon

Avian depression can be caused by change in cage position, boredom, the death of a companion, or even the loss of a beloved toy. Watch out for compulsive feather plucking (which is similar to trichotillomania in people), excessive head nodding, puffed-up feathers, and overall aggression.

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6. If you have a hamster, you’ve definitely seen the little guy shove as much grub in his cheeks as physically possible, which always gets us laughing. But have you considered why these rodents do this? It’s a form of hoarding, and it’s related to fear and survival.

Spaulding Decon

Hamsters’ ancestors used to collect stores of food as a survival method to prepare for hibernation periods. Not only do they get anxious about literally staying alive, but research shows they may suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression during winter’s darkest days, just as people get seasonal depression.

7. Whether you think rats are adorable or belong in a grimy sewer, watching them nibble on a piece of cheese (or a slice of NYC pizza) is quite satisfying. Well, a study showed that when rats are given food in intervals, they nibble a bit too much…

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These rats exhibited binge-eating behaviors, consuming as much as possible in a short period. Rats given continuous access to food ate more responsibly. The binge-eating vermin also presented other substance-abuse behaviors aside from compulsive binge eating. Don’t leave ’em alone with a bottle of tequila and a chocolate cake!

Marty Mouse House

8. Since chimps are the closest animal relatives to humans, it only makes sense that they would endure similar emotional and mental complexities… especially when being used for lab experiments. The sad truth is that lab monkeys frequently exhibit compulsive actions like “floating limb behaviors” and self-biting.

Jane Goodall Institute of Canada

Chimpanzees in captivity also tend to get anxiety and show signs of developing mental disorders according to resent research. Zoo-bound chimps have been known to hit themselves, constantly pace, rocking back and forth, and even drink their own urine.

Sebastian Niedlich / Flickr

9. People usually perceive an elephant’s persona as chill, wise, and mellow; so picturing these gentle giants wobbling around like your neighborhood drunk is quite funny, yet not completely fictitious. Zulu folklore says that elephants seek out certain herbs that tend to alter their state of mind.

Keiichiro Asahara

For decades, lore had people thinking wild elephants consume rotting, fermented, therefore alcoholic, fruits from the marula tree. Though they do munch on its fruit and bark, modern scientists say they only eat fresh fruit. But they have been known to break into people’s stashes of beer and liquor…

World Animal Protection

10. If you’ve seen 2013’s wildly depressing documentary Blackfish, then you may know a thing or two about the mental consequences pertaining to orcas living in captivity, trained to entertain tourists. Dr. Hope Ferdowsian’s research shows that they often suffer from PTSD.

Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune

Harsh training methods are meant to “break” killer whales’ natural habits. They’re put in cramped spaces and have few companions, which stresses out the poor aquatic mammals. This can then cause them to become aggressive, which isn’t normal for wild killer whales.

Wolfgang Kaehler

Just as animals develop debilitating mental disorders, they’re also sometimes plagued with bizarre syndromes. Hedgehogs can possess “balloon syndrome,” which occurs when they puff up like, well, an inflated balloon. Scientists don’t fully understand the disorder, but they know it occurs when air becomes trapped under the animal’s skin.

aCuteFatSoftDogBelly / Imgur

Some speculate balloon syndrome may occur as the result of a punctured lung, so when the hedgehog breathes it’s actually sending air under its skin. By puncturing small holes on the body, vets can release this built-up air until the hedgehog’s lungs have fully healed.

Sky News

2. Black Dog and Black Cat Syndrome: According to most animal shelters, black dogs and black cats are less likely to be adopted than non-black animals. This is likely due to the fact that dark-colored animals typically lack distinguishing features, making adopters less apt to notice them.

Rover

However, this phenomenon may actually be a result of the superstitions surrounding black animals. Black cats are most commonly associated with witchcraft and bad luck, while some believe that black dogs are actually vampires in disguise.

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3. Floppy Trunk Syndrome: The name of this disorder may sound funny, but its effects are deadly for the suffering animal. Floppy trunk syndrome causes elephants’ trunks to go limp, making it difficult for them to eat and putting them at risk of starvation.

This condition is caused by heavy metal poisoning. If an elephant ingests a large amount of concentrated lead – commonly found in dry riverbeds – the nerve endings in its trunk will become paralyzed, rendering the appendage useless.

4. High-Rise Syndrome: This disorder refers to the act of cats falling from great heights. Cats are known to scale tall objects and high places, but doing so puts them at great risk of falling, which happens quite often.

Surprisingly, cats are more likely to get injured from a fall of less than two stories than one of a greater height. This is because falls of more than two stories allow the cats more time to land on their feet, whereas a short fall does not give such luxury.

5. Rage Syndrome: Also known as sudden onset aggression, dogs suffering from this disorder will suddenly attack anyone around them, especially if approached while sleeping. Remarkably, most dogs suffering from rage syndrome won’t recall an attack if one does take place.

Animal Wellness Magazine

Unlike some of the others on this list, rage syndrome is a genetic disorder. Springer Spaniels are most likely to suffer from this condition, but Dobermans, Poodles, and even Golden Retrievers are known to exhibit symptoms of rage syndrome.

Segerios

6. Irritable Male Syndrome: A disorder typically observed in Soay sheep, reindeer, and other male animals with seasonal breeding patterns, irritable male syndrome occurs as a result of low testosterone levels. Male animals will become nervous and aggressive, attacking almost anything that irks them.

Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon also occurs in human males between the ages of 40 and 60. Considered by researchers to be the male version of menopause, these men are prone to sudden fits of anger, irritation, and hostility.

Epic Eats Blog

7. Limber Tail Syndrome: Also called acute caudal myopathy, limber tail syndrome causes a dog’s tail to go completely limp. This disorder occurs when a dog engages in tiring activities or gets exposed to cold water, which prevents blood from reaching the tail and causes it to swell.

Fine Art America

This syndrome is particularly painful for afflicted dogs, and most sufferers will refuse to sit, eat, or even relieve themselves because of the pain. Luckily, the condition isn’t permanent and will usually pass after a few days.

8. Domestication Syndrome: This syndrome is indiscriminate, meaning that no one species is more susceptible than others. Domestication syndrome is caused by the domestication of an animal, leading to droopy ears, lighters coats, and smaller brains, among other notable traits.

The Golf Club

Russian farmer Dmitry Belyaev was the first to notice this phenomenon after he began domesticating silver foxes in the 1950s. After breeding them through 20 generations, he discovered the foxes had lost most of the traits possessed by their wild counterparts, leaving them docile and ill-equipped.

9. Small Dog Syndrome: This condition is most prevalent in – you guessed it – small dogs. Any dog suffering from this disorder will typically become overly aggressive when around other dogs or humans, growling and biting at anything they perceive to be a threat.

Wikimedia

Animal experts believe that small dog syndrome is fueled by the behavior of the pet’s owner. If an owner becomes lax with a dog’s training and allows it to get away with things a larger dog would not, this reinforces the bad behavior and may lead to this disorder.

3MillionDogs

10. Berserk Male Syndrome: Another disorder that causes sudden fits of aggression, berserk male syndrome causes animals such as llamas, alpacas, and peacocks to attack anything in their paths. This condition is caused by pet owners that allow these animals to stay around them when they are young.

Being around humans from a young age will cause these animals to view their owners as members of their pack, which can become dangerous once the animal reaches adulthood. A territorial animal suffering from berserk male syndrome will attempt to attack anyone who invades their personal space.

11. Short-Spine Syndrome: As dog owners, we want to know our furry friends are as healthy and happy as possible. Besides only wanting the best for our beloved companions, caring for animals with health problems can be difficult.

That being said, there’s absolutely no reason a dog with a special condition—who may look different from others—can’t be provided with proper care and affection! That was certainly the case with one sweet dog named Cuda…

When animal control officer Julie LeRoy responded to a call about the abandoned puppy, she realized she was unlike any she’d ever encountered. Cuda had a serious underbite (just like her namesake), and that wasn’t all…

Julie knew if she didn’t adopt her, the dog would likely be euthanized. So, that’s exactly what she did! As soon as she brought Cuda home, the dog immediately fell asleep next to her cats. Julie immediately knew Cuda felt safe in her new dwelling, despite her strange deformity…

At first, Julie’s husband was hesitant about adopting Cuda since the couple already owned several pets, but after spending some time with her, he knew it was the right choice for their family. Cuda didn’t take long to warm up to them, either!

Julie began to research Cuda’s strange appearance, which she suspected had to do with inbreeding. She began a Facebook page in hopes it would lead to some information about Cuda’s condition…

Still trying to understand her adopted pup, Julie attended lots of events over the next several months. She even entered Cuda into the World’s Ugliest Dog Competition! She thought Cuda’s unique shape would certainly be the talk of the contest.

Cuda didn’t end up winning the competition, but Julie introduced Cuda to lots of people while she was there. Everyone who met little Cuda absolutely adored her, and no one cared that she didn’t look “normal!”

Julie LeRoy

After the competition, Cuda’s Facebook page became more popular. Eventually, people all around the world began to reach out to Julie about her dog’s condition, hoping to help answer her questions. That’s how Julie learned about Quasi, a dog living in Italy who looked a lot like Cuda…

Quasi’s owner told Julie that the condition was known as “short-spine syndrome.” Dogs affected by it are born with shortened spines and ligaments. When Quasi was born, she was unable to move her head and needed ligament surgery in her knees.

Quasi’s owner revealed that her pup actually won World’s Ugliest Dog in 2015. That’s right—she took home first place! Cuda was in better company than anyone suspected, but there was still a lot Julie wanted to learn about the condition…

Quasi’s owner directed Julie to an academic paper entitled “Historical Evidence of an Unusual Deformity in Dogs (Short‐Spine Dog).” Apparently, the condition had been documented as early as the 17th century!

An artist named David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl even painted several dogs afflicted with what he believed to be quite the bizarre deformation, referring to the animals as “monster of wolf and dog” and “monster of fox and dog.”

In South Africa, dogs with this genetic mutation were known as “baboon dogs” because of their shape and the similarly hunched posture that both animals seemed to take while they walked…

This rare genetic phenomenon was also discussed in a series of articles written between 1956 and 1961 about a Japanese dog with the syndrome. It seemed that, throughout history, this condition fascinated all who saw it.

A paper by Elaine Ostrander called “Genetics of the Dog” (published in 2001) confirmed what Julie suspected all along: short-spine syndrome was linked to inbreeding. It not only affected the dogs’ quality of life but females’ ability to have puppies as well.

As time passed following Julie’s discovery, more and more people reached out to her about other special pups with short-spine syndrome. One such pooch was named Mojo, a dog who lived in Ohio.

The owner of another dog with short-spine syndrome, Pig, from Alabama, connected with Julie. Before long, Julie realized she’d brought together an entire community of dogs and their owners thanks to Cuda.

Most dogs like Cuda can live long, happy lives despite their condition, but inbreeding is a dangerous practice that puts these poor animals’ lives at risk. Thankfully, Cuda and her friends were adopted by loving humans and can live the life they deserve…

Despite Cuda’s physical maladies, she was still a loving and amazing dog, and Julie wouldn’t trade her for the world. Short-spine syndrome might look startling at first, but these animals just want what every other dog has: love!

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