Those of us that own dogs know that they are simultaneously fantastically intelligent animals and ridiculously stupid goofballs, but don’t let their goofy side fool you. Dog’s are often much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Their communication skills, for example, are fantastic; not just their ability to communicate their own feelings, but their ability to understand us as well.
Understanding Social Cues
Before we can discuss whether your dog can understand the words that we speak, let’s remind ourselves that communication isn’t all about language. Most people who have ever had a dog can attest to their amazing ability to respond to your mood. Confiding in your dog can be very therapeutic, from surviving a difficult break up to celebrating a promotion at work, and this is because they can understand and respond to social cues.
Scientists estimate that a dog’s ability to recognize when they are being addressed is comparable to a 6-month to 12-month old baby. While Dr Hare of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, has found that dogs may well be even better than human children and, even, chimpanzees, at recognizing subtle body language cues, such as pointing and eye movement.
One notable study proved their understanding of body language by presenting dogs with two differently sized portions of food. Obviously, under normal circumstances the dogs went to eat the bigger portion, but if a human presented a positive reaction to the smaller portion before the dog made their choice, they would choose the smaller portion.
Understanding body language is just one step away from being able to recognize emotion, so can your dog do that too? Well, research suggests that they can. Dogs can definitely recognize the difference between positive and negative emotions in humans and dogs, for example, but this can be argued to be very similar to understanding body language.
This has mean that there have been quite a few studies showing that most dogs know the difference between, for example, a happy face and an angry face. However, there is a difference between recognizing differences and recognizing emotions, and proving the latter is much harder task. Thankfully, an international study believes it has succeeded overcoming this block.
Using photos and vocalizations of happy and aggressive dogs and humans, they found that dogs are able to match the sound to the correct photo by looking significantly longer at, for example, the happy photo when a happy noise was played. Researchers believe this demonstrates that dogs do also have the cognitive skills that allow them to genuinely understand human emotion
Here we come to the big question – can our dogs comprehend human language? When we talk to them, do they understand what we are trying to tell them, and, if they do, to what extent? The quick answer is that dogs do understand human speech. For many years, we have assumed that they mostly respond to emotional cues, and have some basic recognition for sounds, but more recent studies suggest they are little more talented than that.
It started with studies that observed how many words dogs can be trained to genuinely learn and understand, but, more recently, dogs have even had their brains explored in order to fully understand at what level dogs understand language. A Hungarian study has made the most headway by training 16 dogs to sit perfectly still in an fMRI machine.
In this study, a trainer used familiar and neutral words with the dogs while they were in the fMRI machines. All the words were given once in a neutral tone, and then again in a happy tone as a control. The study found that:
- Regardless of tone, familiar words were processed in the left hemisphere. This is the same process as humans.
- The dogs used the auditory regions of the right hemisphere to analyze tone for unknown words; another similarity to human brains.
Ultimately, this all means you might not be able to trick your dog just by using a happy voice. Saying ‘we’re going to the vet’, if your dog understands the words ‘vet’, will have the same negative response, regardless of your tone.
What is Your Dog Capable of?
So, we’ve established that dogs are much more intelligent than we give them credit for, but what do they use this intelligence for? Understanding how your dog thinks can open new possibilities and opportunities for a pet owner, and scientists are just getting started. There is still a lot of potential for testing pets in fMRI machines that has yet to be explored.
Regardless of what the future holds, it is clear that dogs are great listeners, and there are two clear ways you can use this to your advantage:
- Your dog can learn more than just basic training words
With time and patience, you could manage to train your dog to have a vocabulary of around 200 words, and what these words are is up to you. Beyond their name, your name, and important training cue words, what other words do you wish they knew? For example, what do you tend to talk to your dog about?
There are plenty of words, once you think about it, such as ‘park’, ‘forest’, ‘vet’, ‘food’, and ‘water’. Once your dog fully understands all these words, you may even be able to get some form of conversation going. It’d be interesting to see if a well-trained dog will respond to being given choices of preference, such as between ‘lake’ or ‘forest’ for their walk that day.
- You can strengthen your relationship
If you have ever caught yourself talking very seriously to your dog, and then stopped because you thought ‘Don’t be so ridiculous – he can’t understand’ – well, now you know he can! Obviously, your dog isn’t going to comprehend a lot of what you say, but don’t assume they aren’t understanding at all. After all, one dog named Chaser has been able to learn and use a vocabulary of more the 1,000 words.
This could mean you can combine a simple vocabulary that you have trained your dog to understand with emotional cues to tell your dog about your day, and they will probably, on some level, understand. Talking and sharing your life with your dog will make your bond even stronger than before. Our advice is to prioritize the word ‘love’, so you can always easily tell them you love them.
Why Are Dogs So Good at Understanding Us?
While they might not understand the complexities of your complaints about your boss or excitement after a first date, dogs are fantastic companions, so it is reassuring to know that they do understand us, at least a little bit. But, what makes dogs so adept with humans?
Some studies have shown that dogs respond better to human sounds than wolf sounds, and this is actually not that surprising when you remember that dogs and humans have shared a relationship for thousands of years.
While it isn’t clear what has exactly happened over this period to build our relationship in this way, it is theorized that they are experts on humans due to the selective breeding process that created the dogs we know and love today. This process naturally prioritized breeds that were not too independent of us, and who demonstrated a cognitive ability to understand and respond to our needs.
How Do Dogs Learn Words?
If you are going to train your dog’s vocabulary, you need to understand how a dog learns new words. As demonstrated by the Hungarian study, dogs use their sense of hearing when they are trying to understand new words and phrases. As a human, you are probably quiet familiar with this cognitive function, known as ‘sharpening’, as we humans also tend to sharpen our hearing when our brains are confused by a particular sound.
Before teaching a new term to your dog, make sure your whole family is in agreement about that word. You don’t want to confuse your dog by trying to teach them ‘wait’ and ‘stay’. A quick guide for introducing a new word to your dog includes:
- First, you have to teach the word itself to your dog. This means they must be able to pick up all different sounds within the word. As we’ve established, dogs learn through their hearing so you simply need to make eye contact with them when they are in a focused mood and repeat the word carefully and clearly, but not excessively slowly.
- Next, show them what the word means, and reward them when they respond correctly to the word. This might mean pushing their bottom to make them sit, and then saying ‘sit’, or it may be naming each of their toys and rewarding them when they fetch the correct one on command.
- Don’t worry too much about dictionary definitions, but concentrate on understanding and responses. In our example earlier of ‘love’, your dog will never truly understand the concept of love. After all, centuries of poets still can’t even agree on it! But you can offer them a small variety of affectionate moments, such as hugs and kisses, and train your dog to associate those moments with the word ‘love’. This way, they are more likely to understand you when you say ‘I love you’.