Can Dogs Understand What We Say to Them?

Can Dogs Understand What We Say to Them

Can Dogs Understand What We Say to ThemDr. Gregory Berns has been studying dogs for a number of years, and was the first scientist to effectively apply functional MRI to dogs [1][2].

Berns believes that the more he studies them, the more similarities he sees between their and human brains, and we can only appreciate his research progress.

Today, we know that dogs are intelligent animals, and we know they can experience some of the same emotions that we can. Now, Dr. Berns is trying to prove that dogs can even understand much of what we.

Berns’ theory is that with the correct training, any dog can understand what their owner expects of them. And this doesn’t only apply to the breeds that you typically seen as working dogs.

“They are intelligent, they are emotional, and they’ve been ignored in terms of research and understanding how they think. So, we are all interested in trying to develop ways to understand how their minds work,” says Berns.

The well-known neuroscientist and author of How Dogs Love Us works at Emory University where there’s a lot of focus on cynology (canine science). One of the studies using fMRI analyzed dogs’ brains as they were introduced to the smells of their owners as well as strangers, and what they found was that dogs respond much stronger to the scent of their owner or humans in their household than to any other smell.

The MRI testing is completely safe and humane, and it’s something that is also being performed on humans on a daily basis all around the planet.

The result of the study made the scientist question whether canines truly understand the things that we say to them, or if they are motivated solely by incentives.

Method of the study

In order to test his theory, Dr. Berns set up a testing facility in Sandy Springs, Georgia and had volunteers bring their dogs in for testing. Many different breeds have already been tested, and they are hoping to test a lot more.

Administering the assessment consists of numerous parts. First, he puts the dogs through a number of different training sessions which include walking along narrow pathways, climbing steps, entering an enclosure, waiting in an enclosure, and being exposed to loud sounds of various pitches.

Next, the team administers an MRI test for which the dog must sit completely still for 20 minutes. In order to complete the testing process, dog owners must be diligent with their training. They need to be consistent with their teaching and foster their relationship with the dog at the same time.

The purpose of the study is to figure out exactly what dogs perceive about the world around them, and whether or not they are able to understand their humans.

“You know, what do they see when they see humans, dogs, other animals, cars, etc. so the idea is, at least in humans and even in certain chimpanzees and monkeys, there are parts of the brain specialized for visual processing of all of these things and so what we are trying to determine is whether a dog has that same kind of specialization. Nobody knows. Understanding how that dog’s brain works can only help that dog be happier and more productive in its role serving man,” explained Berns.

Similar experiments have been done with humans and monkeys, and they have found that there are certain parts of the brain that are specialized for the processing of each of the things for which Berns is testing. Now he is trying to figure out if dogs’ brains have the same kind of specializations.

Neuroscientist’s hope is that if he can understand how dogs process things, he may be able to identify which dogs would be best suited for different services, such as bomb sniffing dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, and military or police dogs.

This is still an ongoing process, and they are looking for volunteers. If you’re interested, your dogs must be between the ages of 2 years and 9 years old. If you’d like to volunteer or know someone in the area that may, you can contact Dr. Gregory Berns at or by calling 404-236-2150.



  1. Berns GS et al. Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors. Behav Processes. 2014 Mar 6. pii: S0376-6357(14)00047-3. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011
  2. Berns GS et al. Functional MRI in awake unrestrained dogs. PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e38027. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038027

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