5 min read


Can Dogs Understand a Language?



5 min read


Can Dogs Understand a Language?


Language is a system of communication. As such, when we are training our dogs to follow our words, gestures, and routines, we are establishing a system of communication with our dogs. In this sense, yes, our dogs can understand language and we are able to communicate with one another. The dogs are taking in our words and messages and assigning a meaning to them. This is language processing. 

However, the capacity of dogs to have sophisticated or complex language is another matter altogether. The human-dog bond can be such that we have a companionship and ways of communicating with one another. We probably speak dog about as well as our dog speaks human.


Signs a Dog Understands Words

Dogs do not speak English or any other language that humans use. They do learn to understand words and signals. If your words are English or German or any other language, those are the words your dog will learn. Your dog attends to your voice, the tone of your voice and, with enough repetition, your dog will understand the words you are using to direct obedience and label objects. 

When you are consistent in the words you use in association with the behaviors you want from your dog, you are teaching words to your dog. Your dog may learn words you were not intentionally training but the words are used in conjunction with a rewarding situation. For example, many dogs will come running when they hear the word "dinner" or "eat". Dogs cannot use words, but they can communicate with their vocalizations and body language.

Have you ever thought that your dog was looking at you and trying to understand what you were saying? You were probably seeing signs that your dog was confused. Your dog may look at you with a wrinkled nose and forehead. You may see the head tilting as if to ask, "What did you say?" 

When your dog is pleased to see you, their eyes may brighten. This is not a wide eye, but smiling eyes that are attentive to you. Raised ears will also be a sign that your dog is listening. Watch the direction your dog wags their tail. If your dog wags their tail to the right, your pet is experiencing positive feelings.

Dog barks can be communicating different feelings. Sometimes a dog will bark over and over to indicate they are bored. There are barks when dogs are trying to get your attention to let them in or to alert you to a danger. Dogs will bark when someone is entering their territory as a warning. Play barks are quick and friendly. A sound, such as a siren or another high pitched sound may be a trigger for your dog to sing along and join into a howl. If you hear your dog in a whimper, pay attention to what might be wrong as this may be a signal of distress.

Body Language

A few cues that your pooch is understanding what you are saying include:

  • Alert
  • Head Tilting
  • Wag Tail
  • Raise Ears
  • Nose Wrinkled

Other Signs

More signs your dog knows what you are saying are:

  • Responding To The Word
  • Excited Behavior
  • Smiling Eyes

History of Dogs and Language


Dogs are smart, but not all dogs are known for their intelligence. Some breeds are smarter than others. Border Collies, Poodles, and German Shepherds top the list as smart dogs. Hounds and hunting dogs seem to wind up at the bottom of the list when it comes to intelligence. 

It is suggested that the newer breeds of dogs have more evolved intelligence for human purposes, making them "smarter". When it comes to your dog's intelligence for language, tests of intelligence have demonstrated that the average dog knows 165 words. This is about the same number of words as a two-year-old child. 

In word learning, there is an association of the sounds of the word with an object or action. Children do this naturally. The dog may need some repetition to learn new words. In studies with a dog named Rico, who knew 200 words, researchers learned that he was able to quickly learn new words in a process called "exclusionary learning". 

In this situation, Rico was exposed to familiar objects and one new object and word. The dog learned the new word in association with the new object. The studies led to conclusions that dogs have the capacity to comprehend that objects have labels, to reason by exclusion, and to have long term memory.

Science Proves Dogs Can Understand Language


For a long time, it was thought that dogs learned command words but did not really understand what humans were saying. It was believed that they were only responding to the intonation of the words. A recent study is challenging these assumptions. 

A study by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary and published in the journal Science, demonstrated how the dog brain processes language. Thirteen family dogs were recruited and trained to sit in an MRI scanner, which measures brain activity while awake. The dogs were exposed to words under different conditions that included hearing familiar and unfamiliar phrases with friendly tones and neutral tones. Familiar praising phrases were spoken in friendly and neutral tones. Similarly, neutral phrases were stated in friendly and neutral tones. 

When the dogs were hearing the familiar phrases, regardless of tone, the left hemisphere of their brains lit up. This finding indicated that they were processing language, similarly to how humans process language. As to tone, the reward centers of the dog's brains were stimulated when they heard words in the friendly, praising tones. It seems that dogs can tell what we are saying and the way we are saying it. 

Training Your Dog to Understand Language


Good dogs have good trainers. Your relationship with your dog depends on establishing good obedience and teaching your dog important words. As you work with your dog in obedience, you will be building the language system of words and signals that will make for a confident, secure, playful, and safe relationship. 

According to the American Kennel Club, three important commands are: Come, Sit and Stay. 

Your training begins with understanding that you should never be harsh with your dog. The word, "No" is often enough correction. You will want to use praise words like, "Good Boy". Dogs are food oriented, so use small treats for training. Keep your training sessions short and positive. Be consistent with the procedure you use in your training. 

To teach "Come", lower yourself to the dog's level and call your dog saying, "Come" with open arms. Use a happy and encouraging voice. When your dog starts to walk toward you, praise and reward your dog. 

To teach "Sit", again lower yourself to the dog's level. Say "Sit" while holding the treat above the dog's head. The dog will naturally back their behind to the floor while looking up to the treat. If your dog backs up or remains standing, gently push their behind to the ground. Guide the dog into the sitting position and immediately provide the reward. 

To teach "Stay", use a leash. Place your dog in the sit position and stand next to your dog with the leash loose. Hold your hand out with your palm down and say, "Stay" and take a few steps away from your dog. Wait a few seconds. Walk back. Place the leash under your foot, loosely, then state the word you wish to use to release your dog from Stay. If your dog does not stay, gently go back to the beginning by placing the dog in the sit position and start over with stepping a step or two away. It may take some practice for your dog to understand.

Take the time to teach your dog basic commands. It will make your dog safer and you can enjoy your dog more when you can communicate.

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Written by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/05/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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