Dog brain scans & human/canine communication

Interested in learning more about human-animal emotions? A recent study reveals that both dogs and people respond very similarly to various human and canine sounds.

We’ve undergone a quantum leap in documenting interspecies communication between dogs and humans. Comparative neuroimaging with fMRIs has facilitated an exciting new awareness of how dogs and people communicate and express emotions with each other.

“Dog’s brain scans reveal vocal responses,” writes Rebecca Morelle, a science reporter for the BBC World Service, in a recent article. The article is based on recently-published research entitled “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain are Revealed by Comparative fMRI.”1

The study’s authors, A. Andic and others2, from the Comparative Ethology Research Group at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, chose to study the responses of dogs to human vocalizations and other auditory stimuli, because of the shared history of human and dog interactions through thousands of years of canine domestication.

Study highlights

1. This is the first comparative neuro-imaging study of a nonprimate species and humans.

2. A total of 11 dogs, and a comparison group of 22 men and women, listened to nearly 200 recordings of dog and human sounds.

3. Positive training was used so the dogs would be awake and quiet in the fMRI machines.

4. Human voice-processing areas responded most to human voices. In dogs, corresponding brain regions responded to the sounds of dogs, people and also non-vocal sounds.

5. “Brain sensitivity to vocal cues of emotional valence was found in both species.”2

“By placing dogs in an MRI scanner, researchers…found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does,”1 writes Morelle. “A. Andics said, ‘We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information’.”1

Dogs are very sensitive to emotion

The research appears to document what dog lovers, veterinarians and their staff take for granted. Dogs recognize various human and other dog sounds, and respond to them. Dogs are very sensitive to human emotions. This study provides a neuroscience-based explanation, and further documentation of that awareness.

As veterinarians, we see this daily in our practices. When clients come in and are verbally expressing fears or concerns about their dogs’ health, perhaps with crying and anxiety, the dogs seem to respond with behaviors associated with fear and anxiety. When dogs hear other dogs crying or screaming, they may also respond with fear and concern.

This study may also add validation to the importance of creating quiet, peaceful animal hospital environments. It is a joy to see new animal hospital designs that address those concerns, by creating quieter areas for dogs to recover from anesthesia, as well as separating boarding dogs from trauma patients. In addition, it supports the theories of veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner and Joshua Leeds in their Through a Dog’s Ear book and CDs, which offer practical sound-based solutions for canine health.3

One may also extrapolate from this study how important it is for us to be sensitive to our animals’ awareness of our emotional states and responses. For instance, when working with clients whose dogs have cancer, I suggest they try not to show grief, sadness or worry around their dogs. I suggest they try to be as positive and loving to their dogs as possible, and deal with their worry and grief when their dogs are not around. In humans, ample research documents the impact of emotions on our health and immunity, and I feel this is true for dogs as well. This study gives that theory more credibility.

Start of a paradigm shift?

As a veterinarian, animal behaviorist and author with a special interest in the human/animal bond, I am elated to see research that does not harm animals, and offers us invaluable insights into how similarly dogs and humans respond to certain sounds, both behaviorally and emotionally. I often state that dogs are some of the best students of human behavior. They watch our very move.

Andic’s research leads the way to learning even more about the similarities between how humans and animals respond to stimuli, and communicate with each other. It could lead to healthier, happier, more compassionate communities with respect for all.

Canine fMRIs and comparative neuro-imaging and comparative ethology may even lead to a paradigm shift. This research adds another level of documentation to Temple Grandin’s work on the way we slaughter animals4. Extrapolating some of these findings to the other species we have interacted with for thousands of years, such as cats, birds, horses, cows and goats, may take the onus of responsibility from proving why animals are similar to us, to honoring how similar we are and challenging skeptics to prove why we are different. This paradigm shift could transform how we treat animals by making us more aware and responsible for our own thoughts and emotions – towards domesticated and food-producing animals, as well as wildlife.

As I explore in my book5, perhaps the more we appreciate the similarities between how we communicate and interact with other species, the healthier environments we can create for all.


1Morelle, R. “Dog’s brain scans reveal vocal responses.” BBC News, Science & Environment, Feb. 20, 2014.

2Andics, A., et al. “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain are Revealed by Comparative fMRI.” Current Biology, Vol 24, Issue 5, 574-578, March 2014.

3Wagner, S & Leeds, J. “Through A Dog’s Ear, Using Sound to Improve the Health & Behavior of Your Canine Companion.”, 2008.

4Grandin, T. Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding livestock behavior and building facilities for healthier animals. Storey Publ., MA, 2008.

5Schoen, Allen. Kindred Spirits, How the Remarkable Bond between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live. Broadway/Random House, 2001.