Dogs really can recognize their owner by their voice alone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Dog owners often see their beloved pup’s ears perk up after they hear a familiar sound, but do our furry friends really connect a voice with a certain person? According to fascinating new research out of Hungary, the answer is yes! Scientists from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) have collected compelling evidence that dogs can recognize their owners by their voice alone. Moreover, the research also suggests canines utilize some of the very same voice properties humans do.

Study authors gathered 28 pairs of pups and their owners to play hide-and-seek in their lab. The human owners hid behind one of two large blocks placed on either side of a room, while a complete stranger hid behind the other block. The two blocks were identical in shape, size, and color. Once they were out from sight, the owners spoke to their dogs while the strangers simultaneously did the same. The words spoken to the pups were totally neutral; both owners and strangers simply read various recipes out loud.

Each dog’s task, of course, was to correctly identify the box their owner was hiding behind. Each dog and owner pair played this game multiple times, along with 14 different strangers trying to get each dog’s attention as well. Some stranger voices were quite similar to the dog’s actual owner’s voice, while others were very different.

Astoundingly, the dogs correctly identified where their owners were hiding 82 percent of the time. Dogs are famous for their great sense of smell, so just to make sure odors didn’t influence the results, researchers only used recordings of each person’s voice during the final two rounds. Even then, the dogs still approached the box playing their owner’s voice.

How can dogs tell the difference?

“People mostly make use of three properties: pitch (higher or lower), noisiness (cleaner or harsher), and timbre (brighter or darker) to differentiate others. Dogs may make use of the same voice properties or different ones. If two voices differ in a property that matters for dogs, decisions should be easier,” explains lead study author Anna Gábor in a university release.

The team gave each dog a few moments during the beginning of each round to listen to the competing voices before making a choice and moving toward a box. Study authors explain that the directions the pups looked in during these moments provided some key insights on just how certain they were about recognizing their owner’s voice.

For instance, if the owner’s voice and the stranger’s voice differed significantly in terms of pitch and noisiness, the dogs had an easier time making their decision. Other vocal properties, such as timbre, didn’t appear to be as useful for the pups while they made their choice.

“This is the first demonstration that dogs can tell apart their owner’s voice from many others. The study also shows that dogs make use of some, but only some of the same voice properties as humans do to recognize who is talking,” concludes Andics Attila, leader of the Neuroethology of Communication Lab.

The study is published in the journal Animal Cognition.