Can Dogs Only Hear One Syllable?

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Introduction

"Me, Tarzan. You, Jane." Tarzan movies would show him speaking in simple, one-syllable words as he was beginning to learn the language. It can sometimes seem that our communications with our dogs are also based on a very simplified system of one-word commands and signals.

We direct our dogs with one-syllable words - "Sit", "Stay", "Come", "Down". If we use too many words or start repeating these commands, we actually lose control of our dogs and they ignore us. There are developmental reasons why pups are able to respond to these simple commands. Like Tarzan, they are developing hearing and language skills. 

Dogs can learn words and the emotions attached to them with exposure and reinforcement. We become more effective in our communications with them when we understand how the dog responds to language.

Signs Your Dog Understand What You Say

It would be easier if our dogs could imitate our sounds and our human language. They do not have the physical capacity to form human sounds. Our dogs communicate with us through their body language. With a keen eye to the context in which you are interacting with your dog and your dog's body signals, you can be an effective communicator with your dog.

Starting with your dog as a pup, you can watch for reactions to words and train your pup to follow commands. Over time, your dog can learn more words and will learn the sounds and language of your home.

Dogs can be good listeners. You can tell if your dog is attentive to you by signs of alertness. The alert dog will be standing with a forward pose. The dog will be looking at you with alert ears. Their forehead and nose will be smooth with a closed mouth. The tail will be straight back but may be up and wagging to the right if the dog is also anticipating a positive experience. 

If your dog is confused by your words, you will see your dog tilting their head as if a different angle will help with comprehension. The face of the dog may express confusion with wide eyes, lopsided ears that raise and lower, and a closed mouth. The confused dog may engage in a searching behavior, pacing about to find a solution.

Body Language

Signs that your dog knows what you are saying include:
  • Alert
  • Head tilting
  • Wag tail
  • Pacing
  • Ears up

Other Signs

More signs that your pooch understands you are:
  • Responding to your commands
  • Excited behavior
  • Eye contact

The History of Dogs Understanding Words

The pup comes into the world without vision, hearing, or teeth. During the first weeks of their development, they are completely dependent on their mother. Within 2 - 4 weeks, the sense of hearing begins to develop. By 3 - 12 weeks, early socialization experiences become very important as the pup interacts with litter mates and humans. 

The pup will need exposures to a range of sounds and words. Do not overwhelm the pup with complex language and sounds. Keep sounds soft and words pleasant. Puppies will respond to one-syllable words.

When naming your puppy, they will only respond to the first syllable of their name. If you want to name your dog Benedict, your pup will respond to Ben and, when older, your dog will respond to Benny. Dog trainers have established that dogs will respond best to two-syllable names like Bonny, Buddy, or ToTo. 

Your training with the pup needs to begin when they are young, at about 5 - 7 weeks. Your early training needs to be limited to simple one-syllable commands at this stage to support your pup's ability to comprehend and remember the word. 

As dogs have more experience with words and language, their language comprehensive will expand. Dogs can learn about 165 words. Their language ability will vary by age, breed, and opportunity. Pups are learning and need to be continued to support to learn commands and words as they mature into dogs. 

Some dogs are actually smarter than others when it comes to learning a language. Dogs bred to work with men, like Border Collies and Poodles, demonstrate more language capacity than the older breeds of dogs, like Hounds.

The Science of Language in Dogs

Studies have shown that the dog brain is wired to process different components of human speech. Dogs are perceiving and interpreting both the words you speak and the emotional intonations that are connected to words. In humans and dogs, different parts of the brains have specialized functions for language. 

The left hemisphere of the brain is associated with words. The right side of the brain has specialized functions for processing the emotions associated with words. 

Researchers Victoria Ratcliffe and David Reby of the University of Sussex studied the reactions to human language in the hemispheres of the dog brain. They studied 250 different dogs from more than 60 breeds with different sounds. They learned that dogs will turn their heads in the direction they think a sound is coming from. They used familiar commands like "Come On, Then" with and without intonation. 

If they played a familiar command without intonation, the left hemisphere of the brain was stimulated. When they changed the order of the words and syllables, the brain responded differently. This finding was taken as meaning the dog was hearing more than one syllable. 

It appears that dogs are able to remember and break down the components of human speech. It is not known if this capacity is an evolutionary outcome of the domestication of dogs or if mammals have a shared hemispheric capacity for speech processing.

Training Early Commands to Your Pup

Knowing that our pups will respond to one-syllable words will make training go easier for them and you. Do not use complex words to train them. Follow the advice of trainers to start simple, keep training sessions very short, and to be patient and positive with your pup during training. There are basic commands that you will want to train. These include:

  • Come
  • Heel
  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Down

Teaching your pup to come is one of the early commands. Test your pup's readiness for training by holding a piece of kibble in front of the nose. If the dog responds to the kibble, the pup is ready. If the pup is not responding to the kibble, try again in a few days. When you know the dog will respond to the scent of the kibble, you can start training. 

Place your pup in a calm environment that is not distracting. Lower yourself and call your dog to come in a pleasant and encouraging tone. Say "Come", holding the kibble in your hand. When your dog comes to you, give praise and the treat. 

Never call your dog to come and then punish the dog. The dog will not remember what they did wrong and those actions will teach your dog to not come because something bad will happen. Once your dog learns to come, you can proceed to the next basic commands.

Safety Tips When Training Dogs:

  • Only use the "Come" command with praise and positive reinforcement.
  • Teach your dog to react to commands when you say them once.
  • Teach your dog to walk safely with the "Heel" command and leash.
  • The "Stay" command will help your dog stay in control.
  • It is your responsibility to keep your dog safe with good obedience training.