Studies & Research
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Do Dogs Understand Our Words?
Say What?


“This is not your food! Don’t even think about eating it. This … is … not … your … food.” What do our words mean to dogs? Not that I’m about to stop speaking to dogs anytime soon, but I do wonder what my daily utterances signify to Millie, Piper, Upton and Finnegan, the dogs I converse with on a regular basis. Do I sound like a cross between Charlie Brown’s teacher and Gary Larson’s “What Dogs Hear” cartoon? Are we on the same page, or even in the same book?

I set out on a quest to explore dogs and their understanding of human language. What do we think dogs understand? A lot, according to a study by Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest. Thirty-seven owners provided a list of 430 different utterances that they thought their dogs knew, with each owner providing an average of 30 phrases.

Enter Rico, Chaser, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, companion dogs celebrated for their panache for human language. The news media hails them as “super smart,” and after meeting Chaser, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson exclaimed, “Who would have thought that animals are capable of this much display of intellect?”

So what are these dogs doing with words?

Dogs can learn the names of many, many, many different objects. Julia Fischer, group leader at the German Primate Center’s Cognitive Ethology Lab, heard that a Border Collie named Rico knew the names of 70 individual objects, and she wanted to know how Rico mapped specific human words to particular objects. “I contacted the owners, and they let us visit their home and start a study of Rico,” explains Fischer. This culminated in 2004 with an article in Science, reporting that Rico knew the names of over 200 different objects.

Seven years later, Chaser, a Border Collie in South Carolina, took the gold medal when Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College reported that Chaser knew the distinct names of 1,022 objects — more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic items. Chaser knows that “Uncle Fuzz” is different from “Wise Owl,” who is certainly different from “Merlin.” This is not merely a story about Border Collies, however. Researchers recently related that Bailey, a 12-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, knows the names of about 120 toys.

Chaser and Rico also win praise for their ability to learn and retain the names of new objects. When presented with a group of toys, all of which were familiar except one, the dogs could retrieve the unknown toy when asked to fetch using an unfamiliar word. In essence, the dogs were pairing a novel object with an unfamiliar name after a single association and then remembering the name of that new object in subsequent trials. In children, this is called “fast mapping,” and it was thought to be uniquely human. Pilley notes, “This research shows that this understanding occurs on a single trial. However, Chaser needed addition rehearsal in order to transfer this understanding or learning into long-term memory.”

But life is not only about knowing the names of one’s stuffies and Frisbees. Humans often use verbs such as come, sit, down and off to get dogs to alter their behavior. After controlling for outside contextual cues, researchers found that dogs could still understand that specific words map to specific physical actions. Chaser showed an incredible amount of flexibility with actions — performing “take,” “paw” and “nose” toward different objects.

“That’s just training,” you might say, but this suggests that some dogs show a cognitively advanced skill where actions are understood as independent from objects. Reid and Pilley found that Chaser does not interpret “fetch sock” as one single word, like “fetchsock.” Instead, she can perform a number of different actions flexibly toward a number of different objects. Daniela Ramos, a veterinary behaviorist in São Paulo, discovered that a mutt named Sofia could also differentiate object names from action commands, suggesting these dogs attend to the individual meaning of each word.



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Submitted by lzf | December 26 2012 |

We are amazed by dogs that seems to understand our language, and I bet dogs are equally impressed with the rare human who seems to understand dog communication!

Submitted by Jen | December 28 2012 |

Very nice, well-written article!

I have two herding-type dogs who are very human focused. They watch everything my husband and I do, of course thanks to genetics (and daily-life/training - we talk at them and they join in with everything). The two couldn't be more different when energy and motivation is concerned, though. What I find fascinating is my low-energy, low-motivation dog is way more focused and... brilliant... when it comes to understanding what I want her to do.

I know it's all tone, body-language, and subtle movements - but she always seems to inherently know what I want her to do, where I want her to move, what is about to happen, etc. I know I send off signals I don't even know about that she reads, but I seem to utter things in plain tone without any pointing "hey I really need you to, um yeah, get off the bed or whatever" (no pointing or looking at the floor) and she will hop off.

My other dog is staring even more intently watching me (hyperactive working dog), but I will have to point at the floor and clearly ask him to get off the bed for him to do the same thing.

It seems spooky, and I know better, but I will joke that this quiet, sensitive, but very aware dog "knows English". Long story short, I think there are specific dogs (within breed types, not just breeds) that are particularly adept at interpretation of subtle visual and tone cues we might not even realize we're sending. Being she was a very panic-ridden dog in her past, and is still overly cautious, this makes sense for her.


Submitted by Prof.Pedant | June 5 2013 |

I've been trying to figure out what words my cat understands, and how she understands them. I haven't got very far, but I am pretty sure that her understanding of the word "no" is something like "be more sneaky".

Submitted by sharon tallmadge | June 9 2013 |

Dakota, my English Setter, started mumbling as a puppy, so on a lark I encouraged him to talk, which resulted in clear english, I want that, outside, throw the rabbit, water, hungry, green lamb, and combinations. He knows which toys are what names. One late night my son, Reid, came in and Dakota doing his usual maniac dog barking while I told him to shut up looked at me and said 'I want Reid', never taught him to say Reid; he came up with that all on his own. When he is upset that I am not responding to what he wants, his English gets very fluent and loud. I should have exploited this but got lazy . Thing is he understands me, but I'm not smart enough to understand him in dog speak. He puts up with me tho. Never knew anyone, man nor beast so loving and willing to please.

Submitted by Sally | July 3 2013 |

Dogs are, at least two of the dogs i have had, much more able to comprehend words (not just words but ideas) than they are given credit for. The dog I currently have knows over 1000 words, many of them fairly sophisticated words. It is mostly a matter of how they are taught (not that this dog is not also pretty smart). I believe the notion that language is only the province of the human species needs to be reworked, at least as far as dogs are concerned, because however differently their brains are structured, these two dogs have been quite capable of understanding orally spoken language--with training. They just have not had the capacity for assimilation of language in the same way a young child would.

I take exception to other statements which have been popularized about dogs. My dog does have emotions, appreciates classical music, seems to me to be able to feel guilt and is aware of the passing of time, which are things it is asserted that dogs are too dissimilar from humans to be able to experience.

But to respond the article, it is very apparent that this dog as well as my previous dog (both of whom were not Border Collies) have understood the difference between objects and actions.

Submitted by Sally | July 4 2013 |

Dogs are, at least two of the dogs I have had, much more able to comprehend words (not just words but ideas) than they are given credit for. My current dog knows over 1000 words fairly sophisticated words. It is mostly a matter of how they are taught (not that this dog is not also pretty smart). I think the notion that language is only the province of the human species needs to be reworked, at least as far as dogs are concerned, because however differently their brains are structured, these two dogs have been quite capable of understanding spoken language--with training. They just have not had the same capacity for passive assimilation of language the same way a young child would.

In answer to the question from the essay, yes, these dogs have clearly understood the difference between object and action.

Submitted by brenda | November 6 2013 |

hi i have a 7 year old pug chico from the age of 3 months he could sit give paw and now he knows so many words he has a basket with plush toys balls and rubber toys every time i got him a new one i would name it he would play with it and i would contiune to name it now i say chico get blue baby plush toy he goes in basket and gets it if i say birdie whitch is blue he gets it if i say donky its blue purple elephant monkey green baby red baby winnie the poo the lamb the lion orange baby football ballie hotdog hambuger pigie the baby is a pug i would like to know how they can remember i think he is very smart

Submitted by Margie Cantwell | April 8 2014 |

My dog Jack knows that the word OUT means to move away from an area. He knows that FIX means to not let his leash get wrapped around something. And he knows Kiki is his dog friend. So when we ride our scooter and Kiki is running with us, Jack knows he is responsible for not getting their leashes tangled. I taught him by chaining the commands OUT / FIX / KIKI telling him to move away from us and go out and around kiki to keep the leashes from tangling. He had to know what each word meant individually to be able to do the task. My tone doesn't matter. I can say it nice, harsh, happy. It makes no difference how I say it the result is the same so tone has nothing to do with it. He knew what each word meant then he put the actions to those words together to form the behavior.

Submitted by michael | June 1 2014 |

I really don't care how many words she understands because she has taught us so many of her actions we understand. To many hours of love and pleasures a dog can give, Just visit a nursing home or a child center and see how much love is
shown between the people and pets.

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