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Who's A Good Girl? Your Dog, Who Understands More Than You Might Think

When your dog looks like she's listening to you, she really is.
Ray Montgomery
When your dog looks like she's listening to you, she really is.

There are enormous implications in a report this week from a team of Hungarian scientists who say that dogs can understand words.

Not just the tone in which we may tell them, "Aww, good boy! Good little girl!" Scientists at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest wrote in the Science journal that the 13 family dogs they studied use the same parts of their brain as humans to process language. They probably understand words.

This is not just a cute li'l pet story. It might lead to rethinking the whole relationship we have with the dogs in our lives.

It means we should no longer speak doggie baby talk, like "Otay, snookie-woofums, time for walkie-poo."

Instead, people will have to tell their dogs, "Good morning. In a moment, I'll take you outside to evacuate your bowels and bladder. In the meantime, I've left food with beef, rice, and shards of carrots in your bowl that contains about 800 calories, zinc sulfate, Vitamin E supplement, sodium selenite and 1.5% crude fiber. I've put the Times op-ed page next to your bowl. I think you'll love Frank Bruni. But there's a column next to it you might want to poop on."

This research means we should probably speak in soft tones when talking near our dogs about delicate topics like spaying and neutering. Perhaps it's wisest just to whisper: "You know ... I think we have to take Olly in for that ... thing ... the vet does ... You know..."

Maybe it's best come come up with a euphemism in front of your dog. Like, "extreme grooming."

This research that finds dogs understand words means that if you leave Morning Edition on for your dog while you go off to work, by the time you come home your dog will be better informed than you. Imagine living with a smart-aleck dog who can correct you about the fine points of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or gets the answers to the Weekend Sunday Puzzle before you do.

Instead of leaving on music — light jazz, or Vivaldi — as company for your dog when you go out at night, your dog might prefer to listen to an audiobook of Noam Chomsky reading Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order.

And if dogs understand language, how can we look into their soft, limpid eyes and woolly snouts to confide our deepest anxieties and darkest secrets if we know our dogs take in each and every word and just think, "I'd rather scratch myself than hear all this again!"

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.