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Dogs and Humans Are Hardwired to Listen

It's no wonder that dogs understand us so well. We have a lot in common, even in terms of how our brains work, a study finds. Continue reading →

Dog and human brains turn out to be surprisingly similar, at least where communication and emotions are concerned, a new study finds.

The research, published in the journal Current Biology, is the first to compare brain functions between humans and any non-primate animal. It found that both dogs and humans evolved to listen for emotion when someone communicates.

We humans can tell if a person or dog sounds happy or sad, for example, or if he or she is ready to fight. Dogs can do the same.

PHOTOS: The Earliest Dogs

"Dogs and humans share a similar social environment," co-author Attila Andics, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said in a press release. "Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species."

If you say something to your dog and he looks as though he understands, there's a good chance he really does - at least in terms of the emotions you are conveying. This is probably one reason why dogs are so good at reading us. They are super sensitive to how you are really feeling, as opposed to focusing on what you are saying.

You might, for example, respond, "fine," when a housemate asks how you're feeling, but if you are under the weather, your dog likely senses the change.

For the study, Andics and colleagues trained 11 dogs to lay motionless in an fMRI brain scanner. Human test subjects did the same. The researchers then monitored brain activity while the dogs and people listened to nearly 200 dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing.

PHOTOS: Dogs In Combat

In dogs and humans, images show hearing a voice activates similar areas of the brain. The brains of dogs are more tuned to their own species. (I'll bet experience can change that. If a person spends a lot of time around dogs, for example, they will fine-tune their doggy perception skills. Dogs surely do the same.)

An interesting difference, noted in the study, is that in dogs, 48 percent of all sound-sensitive brain regions respond more strongly to sounds other than voices. That's in contrast to humans, in which only 3 percent of sound-sensitive brain regions show greater response to non-vocal sounds.

We then pay more attention to people talking than to, say, the sound of a squirrel chattering outside. Dogs still retain more of their wild ways, so the latter would be just as important to them.

The scientists say the study represents just the first step toward understanding how dogs are so good at figuring out the feelings of their humans.

"This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs," Andics concluded. "At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment."

Photo: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

A pointer named “Major” is identified as the first known example of a modern dog. A description of the dog was found in a now-obscure 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It marks the earliest reported dog breed based on physical form and pedigree. “The invention of ‘breed,’ physically and imaginatively, still shapes how we see and think about dogs today,” Michael Worboys, Director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Discovery News. Worboys and his team found the information concerning “Major” while preparing a new museum exhibit on dogs.

The first domestication of dogs was thought to have taken place 31,680 years ago -- but new research suggests the skull in question likely belong to a wolf. This particular specimen was found with a still-visible mammoth bone in its mouth.

The paleolithic dog remains resembled a modern Siberian husky, but suggest an animals that was significantly larger. Today, the Siberian husky, Samoyed and Alaskan malamute breeds are all closely related. "The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” paleontologist Mietje Germonpré said. Other early dog breeds, with a focus on the U.K., are featured in the museum exhibit curated by Worboys and his team. Entitled “Breed: The British and Their Dogs,” the exhibit runs at the University of Manchester museum through April 14.

Another team of researchers, led by Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, used DNA analysis to determine the genetic relationships of numerous dog breeds. One such ancient breed is the Afghan hound. As its name suggests, it's native to the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and was originally used for hunting hares and gazelles.

Parker and her team found that Akitas are yet another ancient breed. These dogs originated in Asia and are genetically similar to chow chows. The breed was not included in the first dog show. “The first dog show was in 1859 when only two varieties were shown: pointers and setters,” Worboys said. It had nothing to do with the handsome Akita’s looks, as he explained that the first dog show was “for gun dogs only.”

The sleek-bodied saluki comes from Iran, where its distant ancestors might have once lived near the earliest farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Dogs in this region evolved the ability to eat a starch-rich diet around 12,000 years ago. “Our findings show that it was crucial to early dogs to be able to thrive on a diet rich in starch,” Uppsala University’s Erik Axelsson, who led a related study, told Discovery News. “That indicates that dog domestication may be linked to the development of agriculture. It is possible that dogs may have been domesticated independently at locations where agriculture developed early, such as the Fertile Crescent and China.”

One of the most ancient dog breeds native to the United States is the Alaskan malamute. The DNA study found that they are genetically similar to Siberian huskies. This large, muscular dog was used -- and still is -- for pulling sleds, hauling freight by other means, and for additional work tasks.

The basenji is “an ancient African breed,” according to Parker and her colleagues. While “Major” the pointer is the first documented modern breed of dog, the basenji is arguably the first dog to be heavily bred by humans. Although this dog hails from central Africa, paleontologists believe its wolf ancestors originally came from eastern Asia.

In China, the chow chow is affectionately referred to as Songshi Quan, meaning “puffy-lion dog.” It is genetically close to the Akita, also from Asia. It represents yet another early breed.

Of the four most ancient known Asian dog breeds, the shar-pei was the first to diverge from a wolf ancestor, suggesting it is the oldest known Asian breed. This dog is famous for its deep wrinkles and blue-black tongue. Mutations of the same gene that causes wrinkles in these dogs can also cause wrinkling of human skin.