Can Dogs Think in English?

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Introduction

"Who's the good boy!? Are you the good boy? You are the good boy! Yes, yes you are!" We may understand what a great compliment this is, but does your dog really understand what our English words mean?

It's hard not to wonder whether you and your pup are on the same page, or even in the same book. If you train your dog in English, it is normal to wonder if their thoughts start to show up in the language they have learned. To find out more, read on!

Signs Your Dog Understands English

Do our dogs truly understand what we say? Studies show the answer is yes! Dogs are very aware animals and are capable of reading human body language and tone to decipher our intentions. Although, dogs don’t have words they are able to communicate through body language and sounds that enable us to understand what they want or what they are thinking.

For instance, a dog that turns their head away or begins licking their lips may be showing a sign of nervousness. However, there is still a lot to learn about dog thinking and behavior, and researchers are constantly developing new ways to study the brains of man's best friend.

According to a study profiled in USA Today, dogs are capable of making eye contact and listening for cues from their owners in similar way infants react to their parents. A head tilt may indicate that your dog does understand your facial expressions, cues, and tones. 

Dogs observe human eye contact and body language to figure out what we want from them. The study analyzed several dogs after watching two separate videos. In each case, the dogs responded almost identically to the infants that were analyzed in the same study. This has lead researchers to believe that dogs have picked up human-like tendencies after generations of building relationships with us. 

Body Language

Here are some signs that your pup is in tune with what you are saying and is listening attentively:
  • Head tilting
  • Listening
  • Wag tail
  • Raise ears

Other Signs

Here are some other signs that indicate your dog understands you:
  • Eye contact
  • Alert to your voice and tone
  • Doing what you asked

The History Behind Dogs Understanding English

Dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have been interacting with us humans for millennia! Researchers argue that dogs are "tuned in" to what us humans have to say because dogs have lived with humans for such a long time. Dogs tend to have a strong sense of observation which allows them to pick up hints in our body language and the tones of our voices.

In one study, it was suggested that dogs are able to understand words and how they are said. However, meaningful words stated in a neutral way did not have the same impact as the same words said in an encouraging way. Brain imaging has showed that dogs process words using the left side of their brains, just like humans do. Dogs use the right side of their brains to understand tone and pitch. This leads researchers to believe that dog brains care not only about what we say, but also how we say it.

The Science Behind Dogs Understanding English

Studies show that dogs, in fact, do not think in English, because ultimately our doggos are not able to understand English or any other human-created language. However, they are able to understand words (simply, sounds) in any language, including English. 

For example, after a dog hears the sound “sit” or "paw" many times over, the dog associates the sound with a behavior. However, research has shown that this association all depends on the reward. If your pup has something better to do, offering more attractive rewards, or the reward for not "giving paw" is not that pleasant, then your pup probably won't comply with your command. In the end, your dog is exactly like us humans: “I understand what you are saying, I just don’t want to do it.” We tend to call that selective hearing.

It is important to understand how much tone matters, and simple observation can validate that. Whether your tone is stern, excited, or sad, your dog notices. So although dogs do not understand sentences, your tone will give your intention away. For example, if we say “Wanna go for a walk?” most dogs will wag their tails and run to the door. Researchers believe that this does not support the idea that a dog understands the sentence, but simply that that the dog is able to associate one sound in the sentence, (most likely the word "walk") with a particular behavior. Try saying  “Vegetable broccoli walk,” to your pup and you will likely get the same result.

Studies indicate that the reward center of dog brains – which responds to pleasure like being petted, mating, and eating food – was only activated when they heard praising words spoken in a praising intonation. This goes on to support that your dog truly does understand "Who's the good boy,“ but it works best if both words and tone are in tune.

Training Your Dog to Understand You

If you want your dog to understand what you mean (and actually do what you are asking) it is best to say the command in a sweet tone. It does not necessarily matter what you say, for instance, you could say "ping-pong" to indicate a sit command, but it is more efficient if you always use the same word. 

If you do not want your pup to do something, it is best to state your command in a stern tone. You can assertively say “Stop,” or “No” to keep your pup from stealing socks, jumping, or any other behavior that is best forgotten. 

It is important to remember that body language can be just as important as tone for our dogs. Self-confident body language will encourage your pup to follow your commands more readily, while insecure body language can make your pup nervous or even alert your pup to take control.

How to React to You Dog Understanding You:

  • Use encouraging, positive tones to get your dog to do what you want.
  • Use assertive, stern tones (but not yelling) if you disapprove of your pup's behavior.
  • Use the same commands so that your pup can associate the correct behavior with the word you use.