Do dogs understand our words? (2023)

What to say? A look at the types of words dogs understand.

byJulie Hecht, Master of Science

August 5, 2021

Do dogs understand our words? (1)

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What do the words mean to dogs? Do you sound like Charlie Brown's teacher, just a series of 'wah wah wahs', or does your dog actually understand your words? Are dogs on the same page as us, or even in the same book? This article will explore dogs and their understanding of human language.

How much do people think dogs understand? Quite. According to a study conducted by Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest. Thirty-seven owners provided a list of 430 different statements that they believed their dogs knew, with each owner providing an average of 30 statements.

Some dogs like the Chaser (the dog that knows more than 1000 words) are famous for their talent for human language. They are hailed by the media as "super-intelligent" and, after meeting Chaser, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson exclaimed, "Who knew animals were capable of such a display of intellect?" So what are these dogs doing with words?

Let's look at the types of words that dogs understand.


Dogs can learn the names of many, many, many different objects. Julia Fischer, a group leader at the German Primate Center's Laboratory for Cognitive Ethology, heard that a border collie named Rico knew the names of 70 individual objects and wanted to know how Rico assigned specific human words to specific objects. “I contacted the owners and they allowed us to visit his house and start a study on Rico,” explains Fischer. This culminated in 2004 with an article inScience, reporting that Rico knew the names of over 200 different objects.

Seven years later, Chaser, a border collie from South Carolina, won the gold medal when Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College reported that Chaser knew the distinctive names of 1,022 objects: more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic ones. items. However, this is not just a story about Border Collies. There's also Bailey, a 12-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, who researchers say knew the names of about 120 toys.

Dogs are also praised for their ability to learn and retain the names of new objects. When presented with a group of toys, all but one familiar, both Chaser and Rico were able to retrieve the unknown toy when asked to search using an unknown word. In essence, the dogs were pairing a new object with an unknown name after a single association, and then recalling that new object's name on subsequent trials. In children, this is called "rapid mapping" and was thought to be uniquely human. Pilley notes: “This research shows that this understanding occurs in a single attempt. However, Chaser required an additional trial to transfer this understanding or learning to long-term memory."


But life isn't just about knowing the names of your stuffed animals and Frisbees. Humans often use verbs likefor,feel,belowmioffGet dogs to change their behavior. After controlling for external contextual cues, the researchers found that the dogs were still able to understand that specific words map to specific physical actions. Chaser showed an incredible amount of flexibility with actions, performing "grab", "kick", and "nose" at different objects.

"That's just training," you might say, but this suggests that some dogs show advanced cognitive ability where actions are understood as independent of objects. Reid and Pilley discovered that Chaser did not interpret "fetchsock" as a single word, like "fetchsock". Instead, she could perform a number of differentlook foractions flexibly against many different objects. Daniela Ramos, a behavioral veterinarian in São Paulo, discovered that a stray named Sofía could also differentiate object names from action commands, suggesting that these dogs pay attention to the individual meaning of each word.


Chaser can assign objects to different categories based on their physical properties; some are “toys”, some are “frisbees”, and of course there are “balls”. Chaser follows the suggestion of Alex, Irene Pepperberg's African gray parrot, who also learned categories like color, shape, and material and differentiated which features were the same or different.

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Is it training or something else?

This all sounds quite extraordinary, but nothing is without controversy. Do dogs understand words in the same way as humans or are they just well trained? For example, some researchers are not sure that dogs really "rapidly map"; the dogs may be doing something that just looks like "quick mapping" from the outside. Regardless, these dogs appear to have a conception of objects and actions.

Patricia McConnell, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist, agrees. “Understanding requires that we share the same reference, that we have the same construction of an object or action. For some dogs, it seems so." Pill agrees. "When an object, such as a toy, is placed in front of the Chaser and a verbal tag is given to that object, the Chaser understands that the verbal tag refers to that object."

in his bookinside a dog,Alexandra HorowitzRemember that while they are the only dogs in the world capable of using words in this way, this allows us to see that "a dog's cognitive equipment is good enough to understand language in the proper context." This body of research indicates what is possible, not necessarily what most dogs do every day.

How does your dog behave?

if you have onegeniusin your home may depend a lot on you. As Fischer explains, "a dog's use of human language largely depends on the owner's willingness to establish a verbal relationship, to establish links between words and particular meanings." Fischer refers to motivation in both humans and dogs.

Ramos and her colleagues trained and tested Sofia two to three times a day, three to six times a week. When Pilley, who served as Chaser's mother and researcher, began training Chaser to identify objects at five months of age, Pilley repeated the object names 20 to 40 times each session to ensure she understood.

Just like Rocky Balboa preparing for his climactic showdown, these dogs are highly motivated. Fischer observes: “Rico was enthusiastic and hardworking. You would have to say, 'That's enough. He gets something to drink. Rest.'"

Denise Fenzi, a professional dog trainer from Woodside, California who specializes in a variety of dog sports, reminds us that this kind of motivation isn't necessarily the norm. “Not all dogs share thisattentionwords. Even in my dogs [all the same breed] there is a big difference in the ability to process verbally. I did not train them differently. It's just easier for someone to get words quickly.

The way you train your dog is important.

The way dogs learn words may be the biggest piece of the puzzle. McConnell finds: “Word learning may depend on how words are first introduced. People explicitly differentiating words, teaching: 'Get your Greenie! Get your ball' often have dogs with extensive vocabularies. On the other hand, my dog ​​Willie received for years verbal signals that represented actions instead of objects. When I tried to teach him that words can refer to objects, he was completely confused."

What dogs are capable of with language can also be explained by their guardianship. If dogs don't learn to associate a variety of different actions with a variety of objects, it may make it more difficult for them to be flexible with human language in the long run. Susanne Grassmann, a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, explains: “Chaser has been trained to do different things with different objects and differentiate between what the object tag is and what the action command is. , which means what to do with that object.”

Ramos observes that Sofía's relationship with certain objects was a little different. “Throughout training, we always combined 'stick' with 'point'. As a result, it was difficult for him to perform any action towards the bat other than 'pointing'. If she had been trained 'cane: sit', 'cane: point', and 'cane: seek', she would have learned that multiple actions can be directed at the cane, and her response would probably be different. For example, when presented with a new object, such as a teddy bear, she may direct a number of different actions to the bear, but she is reluctant to change her action to the stick, which could have to do with her rigidity. grip body training."

And even if you explicitly teach that different words have different meanings, it can be challenging. Ramos discovered that learning the names of objects is not always easy for dogs. “Sofía had a hard time learning to discriminate the names of her first two objects, but after the initial discrimination, it was as if she had learned to learn. It became easier,” recalls Ramos. “Because this type of learning can be challenging, guide dogs [who have little room for error] learn a limited but instrumental set of words,” explains Kate Schroer-Shepord, a qualified guide dog trainer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. . in Yorktown Heights, New York

Pilley discovered that the success of dogs in learning objects depended on the training method used. “When we put two objects on the floor and asked the dogs to name each object by name, they couldn't; Simultaneous discrimination was not working. Instead, Chaser was able to learn the names of objects through successive discrimination. He played with an object each training session, and through the game, the object gained value. We named the object, hid it, and asked him to find it. Tests for discrimination between the names of different objects followed later.

Do dogs understand the words or the melody?

Are these just "type A" dogs whose accomplishments cannot be easily replicated? After all, most dogs don't explicitly learn the words described above, but they do interact with us in ways that make us feel like we're on the same page. "Time to dinner!" "Would you like to go for a walk?" "Where is dad?" get an appropriate "jumping dog" response. But do most dogs pay attention to our actual words, or are there other factors at play?

Dogs gain an enormous amount of information from contextual cues, particularly from our body movements, as well as from the tone and "prosody": the rhythm, stress, and intonation of our speech. “When people talk to dogs, the 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 actual English words; "You could go through all the AKC obedience levels from the bottom up by saying 'Kaboola' and the dog could succeed." In many cases, dogs can besympathetic toneinstead of individual words.

“One of the most notable differences between beginners and professional trainers is their ability to modulate the prosodic characteristics of their speech,” McConnell notes. "Professionals learn to keep problematic emotions out of their verbal cues, such as nervousness at a race, and to use prosody to their advantage when it's to their advantage, for example, to calm a dog down or motivate it to speed up."

In another study, Ramos explored whether dogs knew the toy-related words they thought they knew when taken out of context. Most didn't, to people's surprise. When Fellow, a German shepherd from the 1920s, was tested for verbal skills outside of his usual contexts, Fellow only knew some of the words and actions that his person thought he understood.

While many pet parents feel that their dogs understand words well, their reports tell a different story. Pongrácz's research found that many words and phrases were used only in contextually appropriate situations (for example, saying "bedtime" when it's dark and you're in your pajamas, rather than at noon when you're in work clothes). As with Fellow, this suggests that dogs may not only be attentive to words.

Put the words to the test.

Does your dog understand your words the way you understand 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 provides a better understanding of what the dog is perceiving.

McConnell initially thought that Willie knew the name of his partner, Jim. "Forteach my dog ​​to findthey, I would say, 'Where's Jim?' and Jim called Willie. When Willie was always looking for Jim, I would say this when Jim came over 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 exactly the same concept of words as we do."

While there is no doubt that dogs can understand verbs, their definitions may differ from ours. McConnell shares a classic example that he learned from Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. “What do dogs think 'sit' means? We think 'sitting' means that posture we call 'sitting', but if you ask a sitting dog to 'sit' it will often lie down. For them, 'sit' can mean to go down, to go down towards the ground”.

Many people tend to overestimate their dogs' ability with words and assume that dogs and humans have a common understanding. Just because a dog responds in one context and not another does not mean that he is being disobedient. As Tom Brownlee, Master Trainer for the American Society of Canine Trainers and instructor in Carroll College's Anthrozoology Program, he candidly advises owners:you are doing something wrong. Our job is to help them understand.”

When youtalk to your dog, consider that the words you utter may not have the same meaning to both of you. Instead, other aspects of communication may be more relevant. Perhaps the real lesson is that context, prosody, and tone, rather than dictionary definitions of words, are also vitally important to human communication.


Griebel, U. and D.K. smell. 2012. Vocabulary learning in a Yorkshire terrier: slow mapping of spoken one7 (2): e30182.

Horowitz, A. 2009.Inside a dog: what dogs see, smell and know.New York: Scribner.

Kaminski, J., et al. 2004. Word learning in a domestic dog: evidence from "rapid mapping".Science304: 1682-1683.

Pilley, J.W., and A.K. Reid. 2011. Border collie understands the names of objects as verbal referents.behavioral processes86: 184–195.

Pongrácz, P., et al. 2001. Owners' beliefs about their dogs' ability to understand human verbal communication: A case of social understanding.Current psychology of cognition20 (1/2): 87–107.

Ramos, D. and C. Ades. 2012. Comprehension of two-item sentences by a dog (Canis familiaris). PLOS ONE 7 (2): e29689.

Alcaide, C.J. and LH Warner. 1928. The sensory capacities and intelligence of dogs, with a report on the remarkable ability of the "Companion" dog to respond to verbal stimuli.Biolog Quarterly Reviewy 3 (1): 1–28.

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Do dogs understand our words? (16)

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Julie Hecht, Master of Science

Julie Hecht, MSc, is a PhD candidate studying animal behavior at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the Dog Spies blog atscientific american. She would really like to meet her dog.

Julie Hecht, Master of Science


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