When I was a young man, I had a buddy who had his dog trained to fetch him beers. No kidding. Of course, when he brought home a 12-pack, he had to put them on the bottom shelf of his refrigerator, out of the carton, spaced out some so his dog could get hold of them. But with that done, he would sit on his couch, say, “Spot, fetch a beer,” and the dog, a middling-sized dog-pound mutt, would nose open the refrigerator door, grab a cold one in his jaws, and bring it out to the living room. The first time I saw it, my buddy tossed me the first beer, waved at the dog, “Spot, fetch a beer,” and the dog brought him one.

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It’s amazing what you can teach dogs to do, and they do very well with verbal commands, even when referring to specific objects. So it’s a little bemusing to see a group from Budapest’s Eotvos Lorand University spending some time confirming what dog people have always known.

Dogs are able to understand that some words refer to objects in a way that is similar to humans, a small study of canine brain waves has found, offering insight into the way the minds of man’s best friends work.

That our four-legged companions are able to recognise words that prompt actions will come as no surprise to dog owners who tell their pets to “sit” or “fetch”.

However, the study, which analysed brain activity in 18 dogs, provided evidence that they can activate a memory of an object when they hear its name. The study was carried out at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and published in the journal Current Biology.

 At least this time there were no American taxpayer dollars spent in belaboring the obvious.


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We don’t have a dog at the moment, but when I was a young man I trained up a few bird dogs. Training a proficient gun dog is the work of a couple of years, at least, starting when they are pups, and a lot of it is commands: Verbal commands (usually shouted) along with whistle and hand signals. A lot of those involve the dog, yes, knowing what it is you’re telling him or her to do.

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And dogs are pretty good at that.

During the study, dog owners said words for objects their pets knew. Then in some cases they would present the dog with an object that matched the word, while in other cases the object didn’t match.

The results found that the patterns in the dogs’ brains when the words matched the objects were different compared to when they didn’t. This is similar to what can be observed in humans.

“Dogs can understand that words stand for things… So they activate mental representations and they link the meaning of the word to a mental representation and not just the context,” said Boros.

Sure they can. And you know why? Because dogs have lived with people for about 15,000 years. Descended from a Eurasian wolf, our lovable mutt’s ancestors are recognized in their Latin name, Canis lupus familiaris. Truly Man’s Best Friend, these lovable critters have lived with humans and worked with humans for 15 millennia. They know us and we know them, like no other domesticated animal. There is no other relationship like it in nature, no other interaction between two completely different species that is so complete and so, yes, intimate. We domesticated other animals for meat, fur, hides, milk, and as beasts of burden. Cats aren’t domesticated; in fact, it’s more as though they have domesticated us. Cats just hang around us as co-owners of our homes, kill vermin if it suits them, and if we are very good a cat will reward us by allowing us to pet them and scratch their ears. But dogs and humans came together for mutual advantage; they helped us hunt, guarded our homes, protected our families, and in return gained regular meals and warm places to sleep, not to mention safe places for their pups. Dogs and humans have been living like this for 150 centuries. Maybe longer.

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So of course dogs can understand humans when we use words they hear regularly! It would be rather amazing if they couldn’t.

We can even teach them to bring us beers. Now that’s what I call a best friend.