How Much Language do Dogs Actually Understand?
Anyone who has lived with a dog is amazed at how well their pup responds to common phrases and terms. Most dogs quickly learn what a “treat” and “walk” are. Others know the term for their favorite toy or game. Some owners resort to spelling certain words, to avoid exciting their dog unnecessarily.
When training a dog, experts tell us to select certain words to serve as commands. Many trainers encourage you to use short terms consistently, in a sharp, clear tone of voice. But many dog owners find their dogs also respond well to long requests given in a conversational tone of voice, such as “we don’t sit on the sofa” or “It’s time to make the bed, so you need to get down.”
What’s the deal? Do dogs understand language? How much do they understand?
Research Proves Dogs Understand Words
While it may not be a revelation to many dog lovers, research proves that dogs can indeed understand words and tones. Scientists at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary spent a lot of time in 2016 studying how all kinds of dogs interpret human language.
A recap of the research reports that the average dog can understand about 165 different words, even without training. For example, a dog usually learns the word “leash” in association with walks, and may be able to identify that item. In fact, it’s fairly common for dogs to learn the words that are important to their world, such as walk, leash, treat, food, park, or toothbrush.
The Same Study Shows That Dogs Factor in Tone, Context, and Body Language
While the research confirmed that dogs understand words, the researchers also tested the dog’s reactions to the same words in a variety of situations, using different tones and different setting.
The dogs in the research project also understood tonal variations, even subtle changes, in human voices. So whether the dog was asked to sit in a loud, sharp tone, or in a soft, cajoling tone, they still understood the word and behaved accordingly. You may have noticed your own dog can often understand words, terms, and commands, even then you are not consistent in your tone. The dogs in the study also responded to human posture, situational context, and the way the words were used in the context of daily routines
At the beginning of this blog, we noted that some dogs respond to “It’s time to make the bed, so you need to get down.” Part of the reason a dog may respond to that phrase is that they are on the bed and that they often have to get down when your body language tells them you are making the bed. The words may be part of the reason your dog responds appropriately, but the context and body language also contribute to your dog’s ability to interpret your wishes correctly.
Training Improves Vocabulary
While it’s exciting to learn that dogs will naturally pick up over a hundred words of human speech, it’s even more interesting to learn that you can help your dog expand his vocabulary to hundreds, even thousands of words. With effort, training, and some focused repetition, you can help your dog learn much more of your language.
As an example, British researchers have taught Chaser, a smart Border Collie, to memorize the names of over 1,000 toys. Border Collies have been bred to respond to verbal command needed to herd sheep, so they’re a great breed to use in this type of experiment. Your experience with other breeds may vary. This video explains how they researchers trained the pup.
Do You Want to Expand Your Dog’s Vocabulary?
If you want your dog to learn more words, try using these common training techniques;
- Keep it short: A dog is more likely to learn one word at a time. Avoid putting the words you want your dog to learn in sentences.
- Nouns are easiest to learn: It’s easiest for your dog to associate words with objects, so start with nouns or the names of objects. Avoid descriptions. For example: “blanket” vs. “soft, little blanket” or “ball” vs. “fun, bouncy ball.”
- Start with words that you don’t say often. Start expanding your dog’s vocabulary by teaching him words that you don’t use much in everyday language. For example, “Okay” might be your term for permission, but you probably say it throughout the day, which could dilute the meaning for the dog. “Tennis ball” is not commonly used in everyday language, so it may be easier for your pup to connect the words to this object more quickly.
- The rules for building vocabulary are different than the rules for command words. Canine obedience training has a different set of rules and uses words differently. If you want to teach command words, then be you may want to get tips from this article from The American Kennel Club.
Teaching your puppy new words and concepts can be fun and rewarding. Remember that human language is complicated, and even humans need years of practice before they are fluent. Some dogs will catch on quicker than others. Be patient with your pup as they learn. If you’re not sure which breed is right for you, research over 200 breeds on our website. If you’re ready to find a dog for your home, click here to get started.