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Study reveals insights into how dogs process words
The study was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter an MRI scanner and remain motionless during scanning.

Scans show novel words cause greater activity in the dog’s brain than learned words

Researchers from Emory University, Atlanta, have revealed new insights into how dogs process human language.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, the scientists describe an experiment in which they used MRI to learn how dogs process words they have been taught to associate with objects.

The team found that dogs have at least a limited neural representation of the meaning of words - differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.

In the study, 12 dogs of varying breeds were trained by their owners to retrieve two different objects based on their names. To make it easier for the dog to tell the difference, the objects were made of different materials (e.g one soft toy and one made of rubber).

The dogs were trained to fetch one of the objects and then rewarded with food or praise. Training was complete when a dog showed that it could distinguish between the objects by continuously fetching the one requested by the owner when shown both of the objects.

Next, the trained dog lay in an MRI scanner whilst its owner stood at the opening and said the names of the dog’s toys at set intervals. The owner then showed the dog the corresponding toys.

One dog, for example, heard his owner say the words “piggy” or “monkey,” then his owner held up the corresponding toy. The owner then spoke gibberish words, like “bodmick” and “bobo,” and held up novel objects such as a doll or hat.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the novel words caused greater activity in the auditory regions of the dog’s brain than the trained words.

“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” said senior author and Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

Researchers hypothesise that the dogs may show greater brain activity to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and are trying to do so - perhaps in return for praise or food.

The study was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter an MRI scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without sedation or restraint.

Increased activation for novel words was observed in 50 per cent of the dogs taking part in the experiment. This increased activity took place in the parietotemporal cortex - an area of the brain that is comparable to the angular gyrus in humans, where lexical differences are processed.

The other half of dogs showed heightened activity to novel words in other brain regions, including the amygdala, caudate nucleus and the thalamus. Researchers said the differences could be linked to the limited size of the study and the varying range in breeds and sizes of dog.

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New road sign to protect small wildlife

News Story 1
 Transport secretary Chris Grayling has unveiled a new road sign to help cut traffic accidents and protect small wildlife, particularly hedgehogs.

Local authorities and animal welfare groups are being asked to identify accident and wildlife hotspots where the sign - which features a hedgehog - should be located.

Government figures show that more than 600 people were injured in road accidents involving animals in 2017, and four people were killed. These figures do not include accidents involving horses. The new sign will be used to warn motorists in areas where there are large concentrations of small wild animals, including squirrels, badgers, otters and hedgehogs.  

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NOAH members re-elect Jamie Brannan as chair

Jamie Brannan, senior Vice President of Zoetis, has been re-elected as chair of NOAH for 2019/20, during this year’s AGM, held in London.

Mr Brannan joined Zoetis and the NOAH board in 2016, becoming NOAH’s vice-chair in 2018 and replacing Gaynor Hillier as chair later that year.

He commented: “I am extremely pleased to have been elected by the NOAH membership and am proud to be able to represent our industry at such a critical time for the UK animal health industry. I look forward to driving forward our new NOAH Strategy and to working with our members, old and new, in the coming year.”