We establish a communication system when we train our dogs to follow our words, but do dogs understand English? Do dogs understand what we say? Let’s dive into the topic.
Have you ever thought that your dog was looking at you and figuring out what you were saying? You were most likely noticing signs that your dog was perplexed.
I mean, your dog’s nose and brow may be wrinkled as he looks at you. Also, you might notice the head tilting as if to ask, “What did you say?”
Traditionally, the common belief is that dogs can understand languages but just in a different manner. So, like most dog owners, I often speak to my dog as if he understands English. It serves a greater therapeutic purpose than anything else.
But to answer the main question, “Do dogs really understand what we say?” we need to dig deeper into the subject.
Do Dogs Understand the Words We Are Saying?
Most dog owners will agree that their dogs recognize common words.
When you say “Sit,” your dog will fall to his haunches. When you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” he’ll rush to the door and grab his leash. “It’s time to eat,” you say, and he’ll hurry to the food bowl.
But the truth is that no matter what language you use, whether English or Japanese, your dog cannot understand the meaning of a spoken word the way our brains associate it.
However, while dogs cannot understand English or other languages, they can form associations with words.
The dogs understand that certain words are associated with specific actions and that those actions have positive or negative consequences.
Dogs interpret our tone and body language more than our actual words. They pay attention to us and look for physical cues to determine what we want them to do or not do.
A dog trainer will swear that using hand signals rather than words is much easier to teach dogs the desired behavior. Why? Because dogs can read our (nonverbal) body language so well.
They pay attention to our facial expressions, posture, body movements, and the tone of our voice. As a result, they combine all of these observations to determine our meaning.
For example, if you smile and exclaim, “Let’s go for a walk!” your dog will probably wag his tail and prance around excitedly.
At the same time, he may cower and whine if you say the exact words in a gruff voice and with a scowl on your face.
So, body language, tone, and words are all involved in effective canine communication. Dogs combine all this data to understand us.
To find out how dogs process human language, two research groups used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) to see which parts of dogs’ brains are active when we talk to them.
A Budapest-based research team conversed with 13 dogs while they were unrestrained and happy in an MRI scanner.
The researchers played a recording of a trainer praising them or saying neutral words to these dogs and then repeated each type of word in either a praising or neutral tone.
The findings, which were published in Science in 2016, were astounding.
According to the researchers, dogs process words and tones independently and on different sides of the brain.
Furthermore, they discovered that emotional cues such as tone were processed on the right side of the brain, while words were processed on the left, just as they are in humans.
The researchers concluded that dogs have some ability to understand the meaning of words because the left side of their brains responded to praise words even when said in a neutral tone.
However, for the dog to find praise rewarding, the word meaning and tone had to match – only praising words spoken in a praising manner activated reward areas in the dog’s brain.
However, an erratum published six months after the paper reveals that the researchers mixed up the sides of the brain in their scans.
So, instead of exhibiting a human-like left hemisphere bias for language processing, dogs are biased toward processing language on the opposite side of their brains.
That could imply that dogs do not process language as humans do.
In addition, the researchers also discovered that the areas of the dog’s brain that were active during the task were more closely associated with actions than typical human language processing regions.
This means that, while dogs appear to have some level of lexical processing, it may be in a fundamentally different way than in humans.
How Many Words Can a Dog Understand?
Dogs are intelligent, but not all dogs are equally smart. In addition, the intelligence of various types of dogs does differ, and the dog’s breed determines some of these differences.
Of course, most dogs understand the basics of “come,” “sit,” and “stay.” However, if you have the motivation and patience, you should be able to teach your dog more than 100 words.
When it comes to your dog’s language intelligence, the tests have revealed that the average trained dogs know about 165 words. This is roughly the same as a two-year-old human kid’s language ability.
The dog cannot pronounce these words as a toddler can. Still, canines appear to respond to certain words consistently and predictably, implying that they have some level of language comprehension.
As you probably could have guessed, most of these words are commands.
But there are exceptions. Let’s take, for example, Chaser. He is a Border Collie who knows over 1000 words. Her owner, a retired psychology professor, Dr. John W. Pilley, taught her to recognize 1,022 words.
To help your pet learn more words, acknowledge his achievements when doing what he is told. Words can be taught to our dogs the same way we do to our children.
For example, by showing him a ball while saying the word “ball,” he can associate the two. Also, for best results, say your dog’s name first, followed by the word you’re teaching him.
Words or sounds can be associated with objects or action commands by dogs. That is why dog commands are usually limited to 1-2 words.
Remember that your dog will not understand that you speak a different language; they will only understand that you request a specific behavior.
However, just because dogs do not process the meaning of words in the same way that we do does not imply that they do not understand us somehow.
So, go ahead and keep telling them that they are good dogs.