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Dogs recognise words and voices, University of Sussex research shows

Dogs can recognise words

Have you ever wondered if your dog recognises words, no matter who is speaking? 

The answer is yes, according to new research from the University of Sussex. Dogs are able to listen to different people saying the same word and recognise it as the same word, ignoring the differences between speakers. Dogs can also discriminate between unfamiliar people by the sound of their voice alone. 

Dr Holly Root-Gutteridge, who led the research, said: “Until now, the spontaneous ability to recognise vowel sounds when spoken by different people was considered to be uniquely human. But many dog owners believe their dogs can learn a word from one person and recognise it when spoken by a second or third person. We wanted to test if dogs can recognise the same phonemes – the little sounds that make up words - when spoken by different people, ignoring the differences in accent and pronunciation.”

Researchers at the University of Sussex filmed the reaction of dogs when they heard recordings of men and women speaking a set of short words that sound similar to each other, such as had, hid, heard and heed. 

Holly explains: “To do this, the dogs have to ignore cues which are used to identify people and perceive Sally’s “had” to be the same word as Maggie’s “had”, despite differences in their voices and pronunciation, and realise it is different to Jane’s “hid”. Then we tested whether dogs could also recognise people - who they had never met - by their voices alone.”

Words were chosen that are not usually associated with commands, so the dogs’ reaction could not be due to training. The dogs did not know the speakers, so were not responding to the sound of a voice they recognised, and they were not encouraged or rewarded with treats and attention.

The test results show that dogs can spontaneously recognise short words as the same when spoken by different people. The dogs could tell the difference when a word with a slightly different vowel sound was introduced. This spontaneous ability to differentiate words by subtle differences in vowel sounds has previously only been recorded in humans.

“The ability to recognise words as the same when spoken by different people is critical to speech as otherwise people wouldn’t be able to recognise words as the same when spoken by different people. This research shows that, despite previous assumptions, this spontaneous ability is not uniquely human and that dogs share this linguistic talent, suggesting that speech perception may not be as special to humans as we previously thought,” said Holly.

The paper, Dogs perceive and spontaneously normalise formant-related speaker and vowel differences in human speech sounds’ is published in Biology Letters today.

Last updated: Monday, 24 February 2020