Don't let their deep, soulful eyes and adorable head tilting fool you. It turns out dogs don't care what humans say. They do, however, really love it when you pet them. So if you're looking for a way to make your pooch happy, a belly rub works way better than saying "Good dog!"
According to research by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne, dogs aren't as attuned to human voices as you might think — or at the very least don't get as much of a kick out listening to us as it seems. In a series of experiments with both pets and shelter dogs, they found that dogs not only prefer petting to being spoken to, but also don't much prefer speech to just being ignored.
In their first experiment, dogs interacted with two people in the same room — one who petted the dog and one who praised the dog verbally in high tone of voice (you know the one). The researchers measured the amount of time the dogs chose to spend with each person and found that the dogs vastly preferred pets to praise. Which isn't all that surprising, really.
But in their next experiment, the researchers recorded dogs interacting with individual humans over the course of several sessions. In some sessions, the humans praised the dog, or petted them, or both. In others, the humans did not attempt to interact with the dog at all. And it turns out dogs have almost no more interest in humans who are praising them than humans who are ignoring them.
In other words, man's best friend really doesn't much care what man has to say.
The researcher believe this indicates that the only reason dogs do become responsive to their owners' voices is conditioning. When dogs associate being spoken to with being fed or petted, it makes them more attuned to that voice. But dogs don't seem to have some natural tendency to enjoy hearing us ask "Who's a good doggie? Who's a good doggie?"
Which doesn't mean your dog doesn't love you. In fact just the opposite is true; neuroscience suggests that dogs experience love and affection and can develop such feelings for individual humans. They also get jealous, just like people do. And researchers in Sweden want to make them talk just like people do, too. So there's that.
I wonder if they'll care more about what we have to say once they can produce (computer-assisted) human language of their own?
While we all wait for our canine companions to finally be able to speak to us though, remember: they aren't nearly so interested in hearing us speak to them. So if you're trying to train your dog using nothing but the power of praise alone, you're not going to get very far. And if you want to make your dog happy, it pays to actually reach down and pet them instead of just throwing a few compliments their way. After all, they make you happy, so you should return the favor.