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You might already be sure your dog can recognize you by your voice, but they might not even need their vision or smell to guide them, according to a new study.
Dogs can recognize their owners by their voices alone by making use of some of the same voice properties as humans do, such as pitch and noisiness, a team of researchers found.
“This is the first demonstration that dogs can tell apart their owner’s voice from many others,” Andics Attila, leader of the lab where the study was carried out, said in a press release Tuesday.
The researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, invited 28 dogs and their owners to play hide-and-seek in the lab, with the dogs tasked with finding their owners behind one of two hiding places while a stranger hid behind the other one.
They played the owner’s voice from the owner’s hiding place, and a stranger’s voice from the other hiding place, both reading out recipes in a neutral tone.
The dogs had to choose from a distance and find their owners. The game had multiple rounds and the owner’s voice was paired with 14 different strangers’ voices.
The dogs found their owner in 82% of cases, researchers said in the press release.
To make sure the dogs were guided by voice alone, and not their sense of smell, in the last two rounds the researchers played the owner’s voice from where the stranger hid.
The dogs still went to where their owners’ voices were coming from, indicating that they did not use their noses in the task.
“Dogs’ high choosing success rate, their ability to discriminate their owner’s voice from a variety of control voices, and the fact that dogs’ choices were not confounded by either olfactory cues or speaker order indicate that dogs can reliably use identity cues carried by speech,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Tamás Faragó, senior researcher at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, told CNN Thursday that it could be viewed as “surprising” that dogs would not rely more on their sense of smell in such an experiment.
“Probably in a lot of cases dogs have to switch on their nose to find things and they don’t just use it routinely all the time,” he said.
Faragó and his team also explored what exactly in the voices helped dogs to know where their owners were, and found that dogs make use of some of the same voice properties as humans to recognize who is talking. These properties include pitch (higher or lower), noisiness (cleaner or harsher), and timbre (brighter or darker).
If the owner’s and the stranger’s voice differed more in pitch and noisiness it helped dogs to recognize their owner’s voice, researchers found, whereas timbre and other sound properties did not help the dogs to differentiate between their owner and a stranger.
The study’s findings could mean dogs may be able to identify their owner’s voice over the phone, Faragó said.
“This can be important for dogs who have separation anxiety,” he said, adding this could be a “real world application” of the team’s findings.
“Of course, usually, the dogs meet in person with humans so that they can differentiate us by our looks, and also the smell, and they use all these things, but there are more and more research and technology going into this direction.”
The study was published in the Animal Cognition journal February 10.