Photograph by Enikő Kubinyi
Photograph by Enikő Kubinyi

How do dogs understand us?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

As many dog owners will tell you, you can get your dog excited about almost anything as long as you say it in an enthusiastic voice, at least for a little while. When I would say to my adopted corgi Sherman, “Time for your medicine!” in my “it’s dinnertime!” voice, he would jump up, wag his tail, and look at me expectantly. But he soon learned what the word “medicine” meant, and even my cheeriest voice wouldn’t make him budge. (Corgis are both very smart and very, very stubborn.)

This is because dogs’ brains, like humans, make sense of the tone of spoken language and the meaning of the words separately. Before Sherman learned what “medicine” meant, the emotion in my voice was what he used to understand me.

Researchers proved this scientifically back in 2016. They trained 13 dogs to lie stock-still in an MRI machine (above) and then scanned them, discovering that dogs process tone and language in two different parts of their brains, just like humans. In other words, what you say to your dog—and how you say it—matter.

The scientists next wanted to know if dogs’ brains go through the same steps as humans’ to make sense of tone and meaning. And after more MRI scans, they got their answer. Their newly published research shows that dogs first analyze the emotional component of language and then they process words’ meanings—again, just like humans. This sheds new light on how human language may have developed, Virginia Morrell reports. And why dogs are such good human partners.

Even though my bait-and-switch no longer works with Sherman and his medicine, it makes me happy to know just how well he really can understand me.

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At home in the forest: Fewer than 7,500 Fiordland penguins exist in the world. They are currently classified as vulnerable to extinction. Its predators include dogs, cats, stoats, and rats, says photographer Doug Gimesy. They are unique in that they breed and nest north of the subtropical convergence, in the temperate rainforests of New Zealand’s rugged Fiordland southwest coast and its outlying islands. Breeding under high rainforest canopy in caves, under overhangs, or in dense vegetation, they will sometimes travel far inland, climbing up hills or swimming up streams to gain access to their burrows. “I photographed these few returning home along their forest path after a day of foraging in the ocean,” Gimesy says.

Subscriber exclusive: As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction

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Today in a minute

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Pristine Seas: Kennedy Warne writes in National Geographic magazine about Pristine Seas, a conservation project founded in 2008 by marine ecologist Enric Sala and the National Geographic Society. Tired of writing the ocean’s obituary, Sala tells Warne that he set out to safeguard the living instead; through Pristine Seas, he has since helped create 22 marine reserves that protect everything from humpback whale nurseries in Gabon to kelp forests in Cape Horn. Now, the project has an even more ambitious goal: to conserve more than a third of the world’s oceans. Sala says this effort will not only promote biodiversity, but replenish fish stocks and even combat climate change. Subscribers can read the story here.

Hunting mothers in their dens: On August 1, the U.S. rolled back a rule banning controversial hunting methods in Alaska’s national preserves. As Rachel Nuwer reports for Nat Geo, hunters may now kill nursing mother bears in their dens or bait bears with human food, among other practices, in 10 preserves across the state. Scientists and wildlife managers say these techniques are cruel and even unsporting as they flout the “fair chase” code of hunting. Studies show, too, that killing these predators can cause cascading harm across an ecosystem.

Save it, don’t spray it: Scientists are alarmed by a spate of wildlife deaths linked to the use of disinfectant in the fight against COVID-19. Annie Roth reports for Nat Geo that countries around the world sprayed their outdoor spaces with disinfectant in the early days of the pandemic, believing it would help stem the spread of the virus. This practice—which infectious disease experts have since denounced as ineffective—killed at least 135 animals in Chongqing, China, and biologists fear even more animals are at risk in countries around the world.

Predicting a service dog’s success: It can take nearly two years and $50,000 to breed and train dogs to serve humans who need them—and only about half of them make the cut. But what if you could predict which puppies will grow up to be successful service dogs? That’s what canine scientists are sniffing out, according to the Washington Post, which notes that new studies examining dog minds, genetics, and behavior may help train more star service dogs—and help more people in the process.

Reindeer targeted for antler velvet: Grisly fates await some of the wild reindeer that live on the Taymyr Peninsula in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region. Poachers lie in wait at river crossings to ambush these animals and saw off their velvet antlers, which are thought to have medicinal properties. As Alec Luhn reports for Nat Geo, poaching and commercial hunting have caused this herd’s numbers to plunge from a million to 400,000 in the last two decades. These losses pose a threat to the Arctic ecosystem as well as the food security of Indigenous people.

The big takeaway

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Bei Bei and me: At nine years old, Rebecca Hale fell in love with pandas on a trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Three decades later, as a mom and a photographer for Nat Geo in Washington, pandas had become just another local tourist attraction. Then she was assigned to cover the newborn Bei Bei, documenting his development over a year from a pliant cub to a curious, energetic youth. “My nine-year-old self would have thought that was pretty cool,” Hale writes in the latest edition of National Geographic. Pictured above, Bei Bei enjoys cuddling with his keepers. Marty Daurie knows just where to scratch his belly.

Subscriber exclusive: Popsicles and belly rubs: The joys of watching a panda grow up

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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Hey mate! Fans of the Mary River turtle describe it as having a “punk” or “mohawk” hairdo. But it’s actually algae that grows on the turtle’s shell, head, and other body parts because the reptile spends long stretches of time underwater. Nat Geo’s Patricia Edmonds, writing in the magazine’s latest edition, also finds it’s one of Australia’s largest freshwater turtles, topping out at nearly 18 pounds in a 17-inch-long shell. It can live to be 100, and doesn’t start reproducing until it’s about 20. Also, there’s something unique about its tail.

Subscriber exclusive: Punk hairdo draws attention to endangered Mary River turtle

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea, a link, a Mohawk-haired turtle? We’d love to hear from you at And thanks for reading.