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In the News

Psychology In The News: Do Our Dogs Understand Us?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

15th April 2024

Whilst it is widely accepted that dogs can learn basic commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, new research has revealed that they can also comprehend the meaning of certain nouns, especially for objects they are interested in. Scientists conducted experiments where dog owners showed their pets various familiar items like balls, slippers, and leads while also saying the words for those objects aloud. By monitoring the dogs' brain activity through event-related potential (ERP) scans, the researchers found distinct neural patterns when the spoken words matched or mismatched the objects being presented (established using a method known as the ‘semantic violation paradigm’). This pattern of neural activity is also seen in similar brain scanning studies in humans.

The findings suggest that dogs can form mental representations of the meaning behind nouns that are important to them, rather than just responding to basic commands. The study's lead author, Marianna Boros, believes that this word comprehension capacity likely exists in all dogs to some degree. She views the findings as able to reshape our understanding of language evolution, blurring the line between human uniqueness and animal cognition.

While previous studies hinted that dogs could learn hundreds or thousands of words through intensive training, this new work provides the first direct neural evidence of word meaning in a non-human animal. However, the researchers add caution, stating that they aren't claiming dogs understand words exactly like humans do. More research is needed to determine if dogs can generalise their understanding beyond specific, familiar objects. For example, can a dog recognise that a ‘ball’ is any spherical object and not just their favourite red ball?

One explanation for why dogs don't overtly demonstrate their word comprehension more often could be that they simply don't care enough to act on words referring to things outside their strongest interests, like a favourite soft toy. The researchers note that a dog may understand what you're saying but choose not to engage if the object holds no importance to them.


  1. What is the name of the discipline of linking thought processes to brain activity?
  2. Electrodes were attached to the dogs in the study (this is completely painless for the dog) to measure their brain wave activity. The researchers used an ERP scan. What is an ERP scan?
  3. Outline one strength and one weakness of using the ERP method to help us to understand neural activity in dogs.
  4. The owners of the dogs volunteered to take part in the study. There were 18 dogs and their owners who took part. What issues might this represent for the generalisability of the findings?
  5. How might you overcome the issues outlined above?

References: (accessed 25.3.24)

Boros M, Magyari L, Morvai B, Hernández-Pérez R, Dror S, Andics A (2024) Neural evidence for referential understanding of object words in dogs. Current Biology Published: March 22 DOI:

Watch a video summary of this study here: *warning, contains cute footage of dogs and their owners

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Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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