Can our dogs read our thoughts?

They're trustry workers on farms across the country, loved companions and considered part of the family for many New Zealanders, but how much is known about how we communicate with our canine friends?

A New Zealand dog behaviourist says a new international study goes some way to giving us some answers, and opens the discussion on whether dogs can actually read our thoughts.

The study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, a leading science publication, looked at what happens in a dog's brain when it hears its owner's command.

Twelve dogs were trained by their owners, for ten minutes a day, to retrieve either a soft stuffed monkey toy named "monkey" or a rubber pig toy named "piggy."

Eddie was one of the dogs that took part in the study.
Eddie was one of the dogs that took part in the study. Photo credit: Gregory Berns, Emory University

At the end of the month-long training session, each dog was instructed to lie in an fMRI scanner while its owner stood directly in front of it. In some of the trials, the owner would say "piggy" or "monkey" then hold up the respective toy.

In the other trials, the owner would hold up random objects, like a hat or a doll, and pair those objects with a gibberish word, like "bobbu" and "bobmick."

When the pups heard "piggy" or "monkey," there wasn't much of a change in brain activity. 

When they heard gibberish, however, there was greater activation in the auditory regions of the brains. That's the opposite of what happens when humans undergo the same experiment.

New Zealand dog behaviourist and trainer Darran Rowe isn't surprised at the findings, saying it makes sense that there is more activity in the brain for words that the dogs don't know.

"If they have no point of reference for that word, that is the dog hasn't been trained, the increased activity is probably due to confusion," he said.

He believes that dogs are looking for more than verbal cues.

"When the owner in the study said the gibberish words it wouldn't be said authentically. It's been shown in previous studies that dogs read our intentions so maybe that has something to do with the increased activity as there could be a disparity between the mental intention and the verbal communication," said Mr Rowe.

Darran Rowe says dogs are looking for more than verbal cues.
Darran Rowe says dogs are looking for more than verbal cues. Photo credit: Supplied

It is an area Darran Rowe has a lot of experience in, having worked professionally with dogs for nearly 15 years, using force free, positive reinforcement techniques. 

"It would have been interesting to see the brain scans if the owner had been thinking of the monkey in their mind but then said a gibberish word, whether there would have been the same lack of activation in the dog's brain as saying the correct word," he said.

So, should we use our thoughts and not words when training?

"I've certainly trained the word sit or down, and then said a different word while thinking down and the dog has performed the action correctly," he said.

"The question we should really ask here is whether the dogs are actually listening to the verbal command or perceiving our intentions through other processes?"