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Research: This is how dogs navigate and how they understand us


Anyone who owns a dog has probably already wondered what their four-legged friends are up to. Science can now say a lot about this. Three recent discoveries have turned the understanding of how dogs age, orient themselves, and perceive human speech on its head.

A study in the specialist magazine “Nature” found, among other things, that dogs understand verbal communication as much as we do. They analyze the pitch of the voice and then give the language a meaning. Further research found that dogs may use the earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and find their way home. And another study indicates that dogs age much faster than puppies, which causes many to misjudge their dogs’ ages.

These new discoveries can change our understanding of man’s best friend.

We misjudge the age of our dogs

Dogs live an average of twelve years. In contrast, humans live to be at least five times as old, which is why many believe that a dog year equals seven human years.

However, according to new findings, this comparison is incorrect. As a puppy, dogs age much faster. At one year of age, the dog’s age is closer to that of a 30-year-old person, explains Trey Ideker, co-car of the study, in a press release.

A labrador puppy.

A labrador puppy.

Angela Auclair / Getty

The older dogs get, the slower they age – or their cells. A twelve-year-old Labrador is therefore 70 human years old, according to the study authors.

Dogs process language just like we do

When we hear someone speak, our brain divides the processing of the information between the right and left hemispheres. First, the right half of the brain analyzes the pitch of the conversation and then the left half processes the meaning of what we have heard.

In 2014, researchers found that dogs also split speech between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. However, the scientists were not yet clear about the order in which the dog’s brain processes the information.

A current study now shows that dogs too process the pitch first and then the meaning – just like humans. In the study, brain activity was observed in twelve dogs. “Simple, emotional stimuli” were interpreted by the dogs first and “more complex processes” second, reports the study co-author Attila Andics in a press release.

Dogs use the magnetic field to navigate

Dogs are known for their good sense of smell, which is often used to find their way home and to familiar places. But that’s not their only navigation tool. They also use the earth’s magnetic field, as a new study has shown.

Birds, whales and dolphins also use this “sixth sense” to navigate long distances.

Two fox terriers.

Two fox terriers.

Alicia Nijdam / Wikimedia Commons

Using GPS devices, the researchers found out how 27 dogs navigated a Czech forest between 2014 and 2017. Above all, hunting dogs, which are known for their excellent sense of smell and good pathfinding, were examined.

As soon as the dogs were released into the forest, in most cases they simply followed their own scent back. In a third of all observations, however, the dogs took a different route: They always followed the earth’s north-south axis for 20 meters first – even if their destination was in a completely different direction.

Through this method, the dogs find out where north and south are and where they are in relation to these points, according to the study’s authors. So you use the earth’s magnetic field to orient yourself and find your way back.

This article was translated from English by Klemens Handke. You can find the original here.


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