I’ve had dogs most of my life, and not much that they do surprises me anymore.

So a Washington Post story about dogs’ ability to understand spoken language as well as intonation didn’t surprise me.

Because I have been taking Izzy, a six-year-old duck-tolling retriever with me most places we go, he gets spoken to a lot and has a big vocabulary, at least compared to most of the other dogs I’ve had (mutts, Great Danes, hounds and terriers).

I can tell Izzy in the flattest voice I own that we are going to the beach, and he immediately knows exactly what’s up, launching into a doggie two-step and softly vocalizing his pleasure the moment he jumps into the car. If I say it in a higher-pitched, excited tone, he turns circles, hunts down his leash and a ball, and runs to the door.

As recounted in a story in Science magazine, researchers using fMRI scanners were able to map the brains of dogs to identify the places on the left side of their brain that are activated when a dog recognizes words. They like words of praise regardless whether those words are spoken in an excited, welcoming tone; but they like them even better when those words are spoken in a “happy, attaboy tone,” which lights up parts of the right side of the brain.

Just like humans.

Researchers observed that “the dogs’ “rewards center” — which is stimulated by pleasant things such as petting and food and sex — did the brain equivalent of jumping and yelping when positive words were spoken in a positive tone.”

When I tell Izzy that he is a “beautiful dog” in the flattest tone possible, he still cocks his ears in happy recognition. But when I say it in a praising voice, he usually stands up, then stretches in pleasure and wags his tail, sidling up for a head rub.

What does that mean for us humans?

If you want people to understand you, speak words that are clear and familiar. If you also want people emotionally engaged, pay attention to your tone because it deepens your message and increases their understanding and connection to your ideas.

Every speechwriter coaches his speakers on where to place emphasis, when to pause for effect, and how to use emotion to solicit a response from their audience.

— BOB UNGER

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