It has long been said that a ‘dog is man’s best friend’: a companion whose loyalty is limitless, patience never tested and one who upholds the unconditional promise that your secrets will never (and can never) be revealed.
We only have to look so far to see the love we humans have for these canine creatures. Who remembers Lassie? The fictional female collie dog character created by Eric Knight, who proved ever faithful to her family. She was so popular that Lassie was later developed into a television series and a film. The more recent film, Marley and Me with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson once again demonstrated the love we universally share for dogs. When I asked those who had seen the film what they thought, most replied with an over-exaggerated ‘awww’ claiming they couldn’t help but cry at the end.
Is it claimed that this emotional attachment we have with dogs is twofold. The Friends episode where Phoebe gives the love-sick Joey ‘the happiest dog in the world’ for a day to cheer him up doesn’t quite go to plan when the dog ends up as depressed as Joey himself. It seems Joey’s sadness is understood, felt and consequently shared by the dog. The dog understands his heartache.
…this emotional attachment we have with dogs is twofold…
In reality, many dog owners claim their dogs understand them. You just have to watch the touching video of eight year-old Owen Hopkins, who suffers from the very rare condition of Schwarz-Jamel syndrome, to understand the strength of this belief. Owen’s dog, Haatchi, a beautiful three-legged Anatolian Shepherd, appears to have a very special connection with his owner.
Work conducted by researchers in Hungary revealed this week that this supposed connection between humans and dogs might actually be true. The study involved eleven trained dogs and twenty-two human volunteers. Each participant (dog and human) underwent an MRI scan to monitor brain activity whilst being played a range of sounds. Such sounds included environmental noises, human sounds (crying and laughing) with no words and dog vocalisations (playful barking).
…many dog owners claim their dogs understand them…
The scans revealed some surprising yet very interesting results. Both dogs and humans have dedicated brain areas, which respond in the same way to vocal sounds. Emotional sounds such as crying and laughter and emotionally charged sounds such as angry barking and whining demonstrated similar patterns of brain activity in the primary auditory cortex for both humans and canines. However, dog brain activity was not identical to that of the human volunteers when listening to certain sounds. Unsurprisingly, dogs responded more strongly to non-vocal sounds, such as canine sounds, than humans did.
And so, next time someone claims you are ‘barking mad’ for confiding in your dog, link them to this article or the study. Although this study invites further research into a dog’s response and understanding of words and not just sounds, it has brought us one step closer to explaining why our four-legged pets truly can be a man’s best friend.