Can Dogs Understand Words?

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Introduction

Dr. Doolittle is not the only one who can talk to the animals. Dog owners talk with their animals, too! You may think your dog will only understand the words that are commands you have trained him to recognize, but your dog is actually as smart as a toddler. Your dog is understanding all kinds of words in his world. 

When you speak, he is really listening! Your dog is understanding the meaning of the words you use often. You may notice that when you are talking about dinner, your dog is alert and hopeful that it is his dinner that is about to happen. Your dog is also picking up on your emotions. Your mood and tone are also communicated so that your dog is able to interpret your words and intentions.


Signs Your Pooch Understands Words

You can tell if your dog is listening to you by his reactions when he hears your voice. The same as with speaking to people, the first sign that your dog is listening will be your dog’s attention to you.  Does your dog look at you? Lift his ears? Tilt his head? These are all signs that he is paying attention to you and taking in the words that you are communicating to him.

And, just like human speech, the words that you are speaking have a multitude of purposes that your dog is learning and responding to, as well. It may be that your words are associated with commands. In that case, your dog may have been trained to attend and respond based on the rewards you have established. 

At other times, you may just be enjoying your dog and sharing the day - saying “Hello”, telling him about your feelings or asking about his feelings and expressing emotions with your words and actions. Your dog is going to attenuate to your words and feelings by coming to you. If you are in a working relationship with your dog, for sporting or work, your words are going to be part of your daily ongoing communication to get the job done and your dog will be watchful to your words and direction.

Border Collies are well known for their word recognition abilities. This breed has a long history of having a close working relationship with human commands. Other word-smart breeds include  Poodles, German shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Dobermans. Remember that dogs can vary in their word responsiveness based on unique personalities and based on their socialization opportunities.


Body Language

Here are some of the most obvious signs that your dog is understand the words you speak:
  • Alert
  • Head tilting
  • Wag tail
  • Ears drop

Other Signs

Some other signs to look out for include:

  • Eye Gazing
  • Dog comes to you

How Has the Human-Dog Relationship Evolved to Use Language?

In his book, How the Dog Became the Dog, author Mark Derr has hypothesized that ancient man and wolf discovered one another while on the hunt for big game. Humans would follow the wolves who were on the scent of the game and the wolves would benefit from eating the scraps of the kill. As human and animal hunted together, they began to live together and they evolved from this relationship into breed able to communicate and work together. 

Other theories conjecture that humans would care for wolf pups and raise them to assist them in the hunt. A recent study did show that puppies reacted to the human voice more than adult dogs, perhaps suggesting pups evolved to be responsive to the sound of the human at a biological level from those early interactions.

Although we do not know, for certain, how the relationship began, we do know that the human-dog relationship began out of needs for survival  - to hunt and the benefit of joining with others for survival. Those basis survival instincts remain foundational to our communications with our best buddies. 

Through our daily interactions with our dogs, we are reinforcing words with praise, food, and attention and our dog is learning that those words that he hears are a signal of good things when he gives you the response that leads to those rewards. 

As dogs and humans lived and worked together, their bond evolved to be powerful at a biochemical level. In other words, because of the evolutionary bond, humans and dogs emit the "love" hormone, oxytocin, when they look into one another's eyes. When words are associated with that physiological response, it is no wonder that dogs can understand our words, and often, our emotions as well. 


The Science Behind Dogs Understanding Words

There are famous Border Collies who have shown vocabulary skills equivalent to those of a three-year-old child. Chaser was trained to recognize the names of over 1000 objects. He participated in a three-year training course at Wofford College, taught by psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley. 

Rico is another Border Collie who is known for his vocabulary and his natural ability to process language. Rico, with a vocabulary of about 200 words, has been shown to be able to process language by a process called "fast mapping", similarly to how toddlers learn languages. In other words, Rico demonstrated the ability to assign meanings to words he had not been formally trained to know and understand. Smart Dog!

Other studies have examined how dogs comprehend language. One theory is that the dog is not reacting to words but simply responding to the tone of the speaker. Dogs were exposed to words spoken with different intonations - in neutral or uplifted praising tones while measures were taken of their brain waves. 

They found that, like humans, different parts of the brain were processing the tone or emotion of the words and the words themselves. Like humans, the left hemisphere was activated when dogs heard "praise" words, indicating they did understand the meaning of those words and were not just responding to intonation.


Training Your Dog to Understand Words

Same as with people, the learning of words develops from positive interactions, routines, and experiences. With your dog, you will need to model the meaning of words and use positive responses to build your dog's vocabulary. Steps to building that relationship and vocabulary are simple to follow:

First, keep it simple, using your dog's instincts and reinforcing his learnings.

Second, PLAY! Keep your training time fun and playful! Playtimes will build your relationship.

Third, just say, "No". There is never a need to be harsh.

Fourth, let your puppy be a puppy. Keep training times short and be attuned to your puppy's energies.

Fifth, just like children who learn verbs before nouns, your puppy will need to learn action words like, "Sit", "Stay", "Heel", and "Come" before you proceed to teach him the names of objects and things. 

Teach one object at a time. And use repetition, repetition, repetition - we all know practice makes perfect!

Sixth, remember that learning builds on learning, so give your dog lots of chances to apply his learning to games and situations. 

How to React to Your Dog Learning Words

  • Be consistent in your use of words and praise
  • Give your dog praise when he responds to your words
  • Get on eye level when talking to your dog

We Want to Hear About Your Dog's Language Skills!