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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 York to ban sale of foie gras

News Story 1
 New York City councillors have voted overwhelmingly in favour of legislation that will see the ban of foie gras in the city. The move, which comes in response to animal cruelty concerns, will take effect in 2022.


 Councillor Carlina Rivera, who sponsored the legislation, told the New York Times that her bill “tackles the most inhumane process” in the commercial food industry. “This is one of the most violent practices, and it’s done for a purely luxury product,” she said.


 Foie gras is a food product made of the liver of a goose or duck that has been fattened, often by force-feeding. New York City is one of America’s largest markets for the product, with around 1,000 restaurants currently offering it on their menu. 

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Humane Slaughter Association student scholarships open for applications

Applications for the Humane Slaughter Association’s student/trainee Dorothy Sidley Memorial Scholarships are now open.

The Scholarships provide funding to enable students or trainees in the industry to undertake a project aimed at improving the welfare of food animals during marketing, transport and slaughter. The project may be carried out as an integral part of a student's coursework over an academic year, or during the summer break.

The deadline for applications is midnight on the 28 February 2020. To apply and for further information visit www.hsa.org.uk/grants or contact the HSA office.