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Do Dogs Understand Our Words?

Chaser puts the icing on the cake when she assigns objects to different categories based on their physical properties; some are “toys,” others are “Frisbees” and, of course, there are “balls.” Chaser takes her cue from Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s African Grey Parrot, who also learned categories like color, shape and material, and differentiated which trait was the same or different.

This all seems quite extraordinary, but nothing comes free of controversy. Do dogs like Chaser and Sofia use and understand language the same way humans do, or are they merely welltrained? For example, some researchers are not certain that dogs actually “fast map”; dogs might be doing something that simply looks like “fast mapping” from the outside. Regardless, it does seem as though these dogs have a conception of objects and actions. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and beloved Bark columnist, agrees. “Understanding requires that we share the same reference — that we have the same construct of an object or an action. For some dogs, it seems like they do.” Pilley concurs. “When an object, such as a toy, is held before Chaser and a verbal label is given to that object, Chaser understands that the verbal label refers to that object.”

In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz reminds us that even if these are the only dogs in the world capable of using words this way, it allows us to see that a “dog’s cognitive equipment is good enough to understand language in the right context.” This body of research indicates what is possible, not necessarily what most dogs do every day.

Who Are You Living With?
Whether you have a Chaser or a Rico in your home might largely depend on you. As Fischer explains, “A dog’s use of human language depends very much on the willingness of the owner to establish a verbal relationship, to establish links between words and particular meanings.” Fischer is referring to motivation in both the human and the dog. Ramos and her colleagues trained and tested Sofia two to three times a day, three to six times a week. When Pilley, who doubles as researcher and Chaser’s owner, began training Chaser to identify objects at five months of age, Pilley repeated object names 20 to 40 times each session to make sure she got it.

Like Rocky Balboa preparing for his climactic showdown, these dogs are highly motivated. Fischer notes, “Rico was eager and hard working. You’d have to tell him, ‘That’s enough. Get something to drink. Take a rest.’” Chaser is similar, says Pilley. “She has two states—highly, highly active and recuperating and resting.”

Denise Fenzi, a professional dog trainer from Woodside, Calif., who specializes in a variety of dog sports, reminds us that this type of motivation is not necessarily the norm. “Not all dogs share this attention to words. Even in my dogs [all of whom are the same breed], there is a huge difference in ability to verbally process. I didn’t train them differently. It’s just easier for one to quickly get words.”

Training Matters
The way dogs learn words might be the biggest piece of the puzzle. McConnell finds, “Word learning might depend upon how words are first introduced. The guardians who explicitly differentiate words, teaching, ‘Get your Greenie! Get your ball,’ often have the dogs with big vocabularies. On the other hand, my own dog Willie was given verbal cues for years that stood for actions rather than objects. When I tried to teach him that words could refer to objects he was completely confused.”

What dogs are able to do with language could also be explained by their tutelage. If dogs don’t learn to attach a variety of different actions to a variety of objects, it might be harder for them in the long run to be flexible with human language. Susanne Grassmann, a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explains, “Chaser was trained to do different things with different objects, and she differentiates between what is the object label and what is the action command, meaning what to do with that object.”

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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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