New Study: Dogs Don't Understand Humans as Well as it Was Thought

Dogs wait for an examination at an MR scanner at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, Feb/ 11, 2016. (AFP Photo)
Dogs wait for an examination at an MR scanner at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, Feb/ 11, 2016. (AFP Photo)
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New Study: Dogs Don't Understand Humans as Well as it Was Thought

Dogs wait for an examination at an MR scanner at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, Feb/ 11, 2016. (AFP Photo)
Dogs wait for an examination at an MR scanner at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, Feb/ 11, 2016. (AFP Photo)

Despite dogs' excellent hearing and ability to analyze and process different speech sounds, a new study led by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest indicates that dogs fail to distinguish subtle variances between similar-sounding words.

The number of words dogs can learn to recognize remains very low even when they live with humans and are exposed to human speech. Researchers suggest that although dogs have human-like hearing abilities, they might be less capable of coping with nuances between words.

In the study published on December 9 in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers tested this idea. They developed a procedure for measuring electrical activity in the brain of untrained family dogs. The researchers invited dogs and their owners to the lab. After the dog became familiar with the room and the experimenters, the experimenters asked the owner to sit down on a mattress together with her dog to relax. Then, they put electrodes on the dog's head and fixed it with a tape. The dogs then listened to tape-recorded instruction words they knew (e.g., "sit"), to similar but nonsense words (e.g., "sut"), and to very different nonsense words (e.g., "bep").

The analysis of the recorded electric brain activity showed that dog brains clearly and quickly discriminated the known words from the very different nonsense words starting from 200 ms after the beginning of the words. This effect is in line with similar studies on humans showing that the human brain responds differently to meaningful and nonsense words already within a few hundred milliseconds.

But the dogs' brains made no differentiation between known words and those nonsense words that differed in a single speech sound only. This pattern is more similar to the results of experiments with human infants. Infants become efficient in processing phonetic details of words, which is an important prerequisite for developing a large vocabulary.

"But it seems that dogs do not overcome this phase, as they might not attend to all speech sounds forming words. This might also be a factor in why dogs tend to learn only a limited amount of human words, and could mean that they don't understand humans as much as humans might think. Similar-sounding words could be tripping them up, being perceived in their brains as the same thing," said Attila Andics, the study's principal investigator in a report published on the university website.



UN Demands Action on Extreme Heat as World Registers Warmest Day

 A child cools off nearby sprinklers at Retiro Park during the second day of the heatwave, in Madrid, Spain July 25, 2024. (Reuters)
A child cools off nearby sprinklers at Retiro Park during the second day of the heatwave, in Madrid, Spain July 25, 2024. (Reuters)
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UN Demands Action on Extreme Heat as World Registers Warmest Day

 A child cools off nearby sprinklers at Retiro Park during the second day of the heatwave, in Madrid, Spain July 25, 2024. (Reuters)
A child cools off nearby sprinklers at Retiro Park during the second day of the heatwave, in Madrid, Spain July 25, 2024. (Reuters)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Thursday for countries to address the urgency of the extreme heat epidemic, fueled by climate change - days after the world registered its hottest day on record.

"Extreme heat is the new abnormal," Guterres said. "The world must rise to the challenge of rising temperatures," he said.

Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent, more intense and longer lasting across the world.

Already this year, scorching conditions have killed 1,300 hajj pilgrims, closed schools for some 80 million children in Africa and Asia, and led to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths in the Sahel.

Every month since June 2023 has now ranked as the planet's warmest since records began in 1940, compared with the corresponding month in previous years, according the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service.

The UN called on governments to not only tamp down fossil fuel emissions - the driver of climate change - but to bolster protections for the most vulnerable, including the elderly, pregnant women and children, and step up safeguards for workers.

Over 70 percent of the global workforce - 2.4 billion people - are now at high risk of extreme heat, according to a report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) published Thursday.

In Africa, nearly 93 percent of the workforce is exposed to excessive heat, and 84 percent of the Arab States' workforce, the ILO report found.

Excessive heat has been blamed for causing almost 23 million workplace injuries worldwide, and some 19,000 deaths annually.

"We need measures to protect workers, grounded in human rights," Guterres said.

He also called for governments to "heatproof" their economies, critical sectors such as healthcare, and the built environment.

Cities are warming at twice the worldwide average rate due to rapid urbanization and the urban heat island effect.

By 2050, some researchers estimate a 700 percent global increase in the number of urban poor living in extreme heat conditions.

This is the first time the UN has put out a global call for action on extreme heat.

"We need a policy signal and this is it," said Kathy Baughman Mcleod, CEO of Climate Resilience for All, a nonprofit focused on extreme heat.

"It's recognition of how big it is and how urgent it is. It's also recognition that everybody doesn't feel in the same way and pay the same price for it."