A new research report has suggested that dogs can detect and distinguish between languages based on brain imaging that shows that the animals display different activity patterns when responding to a familiar versus an unfamiliar language.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Department of Ethology, Eotvos Lorand University (Hungary), marks the first demonstration that a non-human brain can differentiate between languages.
When Laura Cuaya, first author of the research, moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eotvos Lorand University, she took her dog Kun-kun with her.
Kun-kun and 17 other dogs were trained to lay motionless in a brain scanner, where they were played speech excerpts of The Little Prince in Spanish and Hungarian.
Before this, the 18 animals had only heard one of the two languages from their owners.
The dogs were also played scrambled versions of the excerpts, to examine their ability to detect the difference between speech and non-speech.
Researchers found distinct activity patterns in the dogs' brains when their responses to speech and non-speech were compared. This distinction has been reported to be independent of whether the stimuli originated from the familiar or the unfamiliar language.
However, there was no evidence that dog brains have a preference for speech over non-speech.
"Dog brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and non-speech," said Raul Hernandez-Perez, co-author of the research.
"But the mechanism underlying this speech detection ability may be different from speech sensitivity in humans - whereas human brains are specially tuned to speech, dog brains may simply detect the naturalness of the sound."
The research showed for the first that "a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages", said Senior Author of the research Attila Andics said, "It is exciting because it reveals that the capacity to learn about the regularities of a language is not uniquely human. Still, we do not know whether this capacity is dogs' speciality or general among non-human species."
"Indeed, it is possible that the brain changes from the tens of thousands of years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case. Future studies will have to find this out."