Babylon Beacon

Pets, Pets, Pets



Do dogs have selective hearing? Well, it seems so. Some dogs are particularly adept at picking out which human words deserve their response. Genetic hard-wiring from generations of dogs bred for specific tasks also determines how hard it is to get your message across to your dog.

Years ago, while walking our dogs in Gardiners Park, we witnessed a woman trying to get her Labrador Retriever out of the water. He was swimming and following a small group of swans into deeper water far from shore. The Lab was having such a great time, he was ignoring his owner.

The woman became so desperate, she started walking into the bay fully dressed. She kept calling her dog, who kept swimming further away in pursuit of the swans. After all, the pup was a Labrador Retriever born with the innate desire to grab waterfowl gently and bring the bird back to his handler.

In a final attempt to get her dog to listen, the lady–in deep water herself–yelled the magic word “COOKIE,” and the Lab turned around and safely swam to her.

My Afghan Hound Juliet (1980-1992) was adept at passive resistance when she ignored my commands.

My Afghan Hound Juliet (1980-1992) was adept at passive resistance when she ignored my commands.

When the waterlogged woman returned to shore with her dog, she realized her car keys fell out of her pocket and now were somewhere at the bottom of the bay. My husband drove the soggy lady and Lab home so she could get a second set of keys while I waited at the park with my dogs until the lady (minus her Lab left at home) returned to retrieve her car.

Meanwhile, Beagles are scent hounds who can easily become oblivious to the rest of the world while their keen noses are sniffing away. One third of the canine brain is dedicated to the sense of smell, making it the dog’s highest developed sense. As a teenager my husband had a Beagle named Missy. Only two words would put her on high alert and prompt Missy to run in two different directions. One word was “SQUIRREL”; the other was “BATH.” Most Beagles will also react to food keywords from their owners.

My Afghan Hounds were pros at ignoring verbal requests. Afghans are sight hounds, bred for thousands of years to run far ahead of the human hunters in pursuit of fast prey such as leopard and gazelle. The sound of a command doesn’t travel that far ahead. Sight hounds have become independent thinkers. No one tells them what to do unless their reward is right.

The 18 dogs university in the in MRI Hungary research listening wore at headphones a Prince” to excerpts read in from Hungarian “ The Little and Spanish.

The 18 dogs university in the in MRI Hungary research listening wore at headphones a Prince” to excerpts read in from Hungarian “ The Little and Spanish.

Forty years ago, my first Afghan Hound Juliet took independent thinking to higher level. She embraced passive resistance. Juliet could detect urgency in my voice when I’d call her to come into the house because I had to leave. If she wanted to stay outside, she would turn my spoken order into a game of chase.

I knew I couldn’t catch the speed demon, so I’d wait her out. Once she exhausted herself, I’d grab her by the collar and watch her go completely limp. Juliet’s jellyfish body would slink to ground. Usually I would be laughing (or crying) when I carried my dog disciple of Mahatma Gandhi into the house. Trust me, I was always late for wherever I had to go.

Beagles tend to respond quickly to spoken cues about food.

Beagles tend to respond quickly to spoken cues about food.

Study Shows Dogs Really are Listening to Our Chatter. Perhaps dogs have selective hearing about commands, yet they are paying attention to us when we speak. Recent research at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary shows that canine brains can detect the difference between speech and non-speech when listening to human voices. Dogs also show different responses to speech in an unfamiliar language. These are skills that scientists previously thought only people possessed.

The idea for the study came from Laura V. Cuaya, lead author of the study: “Some years ago I moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Communication Lab at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University for my postdoctoral research. My dog, Kun-kun, came with me. Before, I had only talked to him in Spanish. So I was wondering whether Kun-kun noticed that people in Budapest spoke a different language, Hungarian. We knew that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference. But maybe dogs do not bother.

Try to picture this experiment. Kunkun and 17 other dogs that had been trained to stay still in an MRI machine were fitted with headphones, so they could listen to excerpts from “The Little Prince,” by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry that were recorded in Hungarian and in Spanish, or those same recordings cut up into small pieces and put back together in a different order so it sounded unnatural.

The results, published in the journal NeuroImage, reveal the dogs’ brains showed a different activity pattern in the primary auditory cortex for speech compared with non-speech, with the findings similar regardless of whether the language used – Hungarian or Spanish – was familiar. Curiously, the longer the dog’s head was, the better their brain could distinguish speech from nonspeech. This makes me think Afghans with their long, pointy heads might realize when we are babbling about nonsense and tune us out.

Research also revealed familiar and unfamiliar languages gave rise to different responses in the secondary auditory cortex – but only for speech. This suggested the ability to distinguish between languages was not simply down to the speakers being different.

Instead, the differences seen between languages for speech are probably down to exposure to the familiar language and a sensitivity to language regularities. Interestingly, older dogs show a stronger differentiation between the two languages. This makes sense because older dogs have been years with their guardians who speak their “native” tongue.

I have one question. What if the dogs also heard recordings of “The Little Prince” in its original French? Would they be so mesmerized by the cadence of this beautiful language that from that moment on, the dogs would respond willingly to every request from their French-speaking owners?

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