“Sit”, “off” and “paw” are probably the most common orders that owners give to their dogs. However, the dictionary of the average four-legged friend could easily be extended: after all, dogs pay much more attention than we thought before.
What happens if the standard orders are no longer issued by the dog’s owner, but are spoken differently by a stranger? Would the dog notice the difference? Some scientists wondered about this, after which they went to investigate. What turned out to be? The four-legged friends did indeed bite their ears for new voices and words.
The ears can be taken literally: it was one of the reactions that the researchers took into account. They also looked at whether the dogs were looking for eye contact; both responses were linked to increased attention. When the four-legged friend looked away, his concentration decreased.
A total of 42 dogs were filmed while listening to various audio clips. Those sound clips were recorded by men and women of different age groups. No orders but the (English) words “hid”, “had” and “who’d” were spoken; words that are very similar to each other.
Every time a new word was spoken, the dogs poked their ears. But when the same word was repeated, most four-legged friends quickly lost interest. “I was surprised how well some dogs reacted to unknown voices,” said Holly Root-Gutteridge, research leader and professor of Cognitive Behavioral Sciences at the University of Sussex. “They understand more than we think.”
Scientists cannot, of course, demonstrate that dogs really understand what we are saying, but the research shows that dogs are listening even when we are not talking to them or talking about them.