Dogs are able to hear voices in the same way that human beings do, which allows them to decipher acoustic cues about emotion.
Published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, researchers discovered that dogs have a dedicated area in their brains for voices, just like people.
The team from MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary said the study suggested that vocal response areas in the brain evolved at least 100 million years ago – the time when humans and dogs shared their last common ancestor.
The study was the first to compare brain functions between humans and non-primates.
Researcher Attila Andics said: "Dogs and humans share a similar social environment. Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species."
The team trained 11 dogs to lie in an fMRI brain scanner so they could run the same neuroimaging experiment on dog and human participants.
During the study, they captured human and dog brain activity while the subjects listened to almost 200 human and dog sounds, such as barking, crying and laughing.
Findings showed humans and dogs showed activity in the same location of the brain. Dogs responded more strongly to other dogs, and humans to humans, the researchers noted.
The results also showed similarities in how humans and dogs reacted to emotionally heightened sounds, with one area becoming much more active to happy sounds than unhappy ones.
According to the researchers, their findings may help to explain why humans and dogs share such a strong connection, and how dogs are able to tune in to the feelings of their owners so well.
"This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs," Andics said. "At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment."