Doggone smart

LIHUE — Kylo, a 7-month-old black Lab, knows two languages.

“He’s starting to learn Russian,” said Sydney Pelton, his owner. “He’s going to be a bilingual dog.”

Pelton, who lives in Eleele, said speaks Russian to Kylo when he’s in trouble. He understands the Russian word for “Come here,” she said.

Kylo also knows phrases like “give me love” and “snack time,” Pelton said.

“He’s food oriented,” she said. “He waits to eat until I tell him its OK. Once, I walked away, and when I came back, he was still waiting for me, with drool coming out of his mouth.”

Bobbee Downs’ dog, Buddy, also knows when it’s time to eat.

“He knows ‘kaukau,’” Downs said.

Buddy, a 2-year-old hound, also knows the name of his dog friend, Kipu, and understands the phrase “I’ll be right back.”

“He gets really antsy when I tell him I’m leaving,” said Downs, a Hanamaulu resident.

Researchers in Hungary recently found evidence to support these pet owners’ belief that dogs understand human language.

As part of an experiment, scientists scanned the brains of dogs as they listened to their trainer speaking to determine which parts of the brain they were using.

They found that dogs processed words with the brain’s left hemisphere and used the right hemisphere to process pitch — just like people.

Erik Coppersmith is convinced his dog, Bernie, knows exactly what’s being said to him.

“Dogs are smart. They know a lot more than we think they do,” he said. “They listen in on conversations.”

Pelton agreed.

“I talk to him like I talk to a person,” she said.

Bernie, an 8-year-old Airedale, knows the phrases “load up” and “dog park,” Coppersmith said.

“He can be dead asleep, but when he hears me getting ready to go, he runs immediately to the car,” he said.

Bernie gets especially excited when Coppersmith, who lives in Kapaa, tells him they’re going to the dog park.

“He totally knows it. It’s like recess with his dog friends,” he said.

Researchers have also found that the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and pitch were positive. Meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.

Because Bernie was a rescued hunting dog from Kokee, discipline only works if the tone stays positive, Coppersmith said.

“When he gets into trouble, you have to be loving and nice. He listens better to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement,” Coppersmith said.

But when Pelton disciplines Kylo in Russian, she said he recognizes her tone, even if he doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

“Even if he doesn’t understand me, he knows it’s not OK,” she said.

In Hungary, researchers imaged the brains of 13 dogs using a a functional MRI, or fMRI, which records brain activity.

The dogs — six border collies, five golden retrievers, a German Shepherd and a Chinese crested dog — were trained to lie motionless in the scanner for seven minutes during the tests. The dogs were awake and unrestrained as they listened to their trainer’s voice through headphones.

“The most difficult aspect of this training is for dogs to understand that being motionless means really motionless,” said Andics, who published the findings in the journal Science.

But Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns cautioned that the study involved a small number of dogs. Before concluding it’s a smoking gun for word processing, “they should have looked for other evidence in the brain,” he said in an email.

Mike Brodowi, a Kalaheo resident, said the results of the study aren’t surprising.

His dog, Kila, knows the words “cookie,” “park” and “birdie,” Brodowi said.

“Her ears go straight up when we say we’re going to the dog park,” he said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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