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Do Dogs Understand Our Words?
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Put Words to the Test
Does Rufus understand your words as you intend them, or does he have a different understanding? If you always use a word in the same context, it’s easy to assume that you and your dog define it identically. Changing the context in some way offers a better understanding of what the dog perceives.

McConnell initially thought Willie knew the name of her partner, Jim. “To teach Willie, I would say, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Jim would call Willie over. When Willie consistently went to Jim, I’d say it as Jim was driving up, and Willie would run to the window. One day, Jim was sitting on the couch, and I said, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Willie ran to the window, all excited. This difference in definitions is more common than people realize — dogs don’t have the exact same concept of words that we do.”

While there is no question dogs can understand verbs, their definitions might differ from ours. McConnell shares a classic example that she learned from Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. “What do dogs think ‘sit’ means? We think ‘sit’ means this posture we call ‘sitting,’ but if you ask a dog who is sitting to ‘sit,’ he will very often lie down. To him, ‘sit’ might mean get lower, go down toward the ground.”

Many people tend to overestimate their dogs’ facility with words and assume that dogs and humans have a shared understanding. Because a dog responds in one context and not in another doesn’t mean he is being disobedient. As Tom Brownlee, master trainer with the American Society of Canine Trainers and instructor in Carroll College’s anthrozoology program, candidly advises owners, “If a dog’s not getting ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ may be — then you are doing something wrong. It’s our job to help them understand.”

When you talk to your dog, consider that the words you speak might not carry the same meaning for both of you. Instead, other aspects of communication might be more relevant. Maybe the real lesson is that context, prosody and tone — rather than dictionary definitions of words — are vitally important for human communication, too.
 


This piece is dedicated to Professor César Ades (1943–2012) and Dr. Penny Bernstein (1947– 2012). While their exceptional contributions to the fields of animal behavior and psychology endure, their presences are greatly missed.


 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 72: Nov/Dec 2012

Julie Hecht, MSc, is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She writes a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Dog Spies at Facebook and Twitter @DogSpies | DogSpies.com

Image courtesy of Nikki Dee and BumperPet

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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.

Jen.
http://DOGthusiast.com

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.

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