Studies & Research
Print|Email|Text Size: ||
Do Dogs Understand Our Words?

Ramos notes that Sofia’s relationship with certain objects was a bit different. “Throughout the training, we always paired ‘stick’ with ‘point.’ As a result, it was difficult for her to perform any other action toward the stick beside ‘point.’ If we had trained her ‘stick: sit,’ ‘stick: point’ and ‘stick: fetch,’ she would have learned that multiple actions can be directed toward the stick, and her response would probably be different. For example, when presented with a novel object, such as a toy bear, she could direct a number of different actions toward the bear, but there was a reluctance to change her action towards the stick, which could have to do with the rigidity of training.”

And even if you do explicitly teach that different words have different meanings, it can be challenging. Ramos found that learning the names of objects is not always easy for dogs. “It was hard for Sofia to learn to discriminate the names of her first two objects, but after the initial discrimination, it was like she learned to learn. It became easier,” recalls Ramos.

“Because this type of learning can be challenging, service dogs [who have little margin for error] are taught a limited, but instrumental, set of words,” explains Kate Schroer-Shepord, a qualified guide dog instructor at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Pilley found that dogs’ success at object learning depended upon the training method used. “When we put two objects on the floor and asked dogs to retrieve each object by name, they couldn’t do it; simultaneous discrimination wasn’t working. Instead, Chaser was able to learn the names of objects through successive discrimination. She would play with one object in each training session, and through play, the object assumed value. We’d name the object, hide it and ask her to find it. Discrimination testing between the names of different objects occurred later.”

Words or Melody?
Are these just “type-A” dogs whose accomplishments cannot easily be replicated? After all, most dogs aren’t explicitly taught words as described above, yet they interact with us talkers in ways that make us feel like we’re on the same page. “Dinnertime!” “Wanna go for a walk?” “Where’s Dad?” elicit an appropriate “bouncing dog” response. But are most dogs attending to our actual words, or are other factors at play?

Dogs derive an enormous amount of information from contextual cues, particularly our body movements as well as tone and “prosody” — the rhythm, stress and intonation of our speech. “When people talk to dogs, dogs pay attention to the melody and the mood to predict what is happening or what will happen next,” explains Fischer.

Fenzi says that dogs can just as easily respond to gibberish as to real English words; “I could go through every level of AKC obedience from the bottom to the top saying, ‘Kaboola,’ and the dog could succeed.” In many cases, dogs may be understanding tone rather than individual words.

“One of the most notable differences between novices and professional trainers is the ability to modulate the prosodic features of their speech,” notes McConnell. “The pros learn to keep problematic emotions out of their verbal cues, like nervousness in a competition, and to use prosody to their advantage when it’s advantageous, for example, to calm a dog down or to motivate him to speed up.”

In another study, Ramos explored whether, when taken out of context, dogs knew the words relating to toys they were thought to know. Most did not, much to the surprise of the owners. When the verbal skills of Fellow, a performing German Shepherd from the 1920s, were tested outside their customary contexts, Fellow knew only some of the words and actions that his owners thought he understood.

While many owners deem their dogs to be word-savvy, their reports tell a different story. The Pongrácz survey found that many words and phrases were executed only in contextually adequate situations (for example, saying “bedtime” when it’s dark and you’re in your pajamas rather than at noon when you’re in your work clothes). As with Fellow, this suggests dogs might not be attending to only words themselves.

CommentsPost a Comment
Please note comments are moderated. After being approved your comment will appear below.
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.

More From The Bark

Canine Mind
Julie Hecht
Sophia Yin
Julie Hecht