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Can Dogs Really Understand Our Words?

By Linda Cole

Anyone who has lived and interacted with dogs knows how closely they pay attention to our words. I've even been known to spell out my intentions in an attempt to keep my dogs from knowing what I'm saying so they don't get overly excited. In reality, I'm the one being fooled, and can attest that my dogs have mastered the spelling of certain words. There's no question in my mind that dogs comprehend a lot more than they are given credit for, and can understand our spoken words and even some spelled words.

The Border Collie holds the top spot when it comes to the most intelligent dog breed, so it was no surprise that Chaser, a female Border Collie, was crowned the smartest dog in the world in 2010. Within a three year period, she learned the names of 1,022 different toys, and even learned how to correctly categorize them.

Understanding words and vocalizing, of course, are two different abilities. Dog owners learn how to read their dog's body language and recognize their dog's unique yips, yaps, whines and barks. We can communicate with our best friend with or without the use of words.

Dogs learn language skills from us when we repeat and reinforce what we say to them. That's all training is – telling your dog what you want, and then reinforcing his compliance with a tasty treat, like soft and chewy CANIDAE TidNips™ or crunchy Snap-Bits™. Some breeds are more stubborn than others, which require his owner to be even more dedicated and consistent when it comes to teaching basic commands. However, after living with multiple purebred and mixed breeds dogs, I am convinced dogs do have an innate ability to learn. We just need how to learn to focus on motivating them so they are interested in learning.

Chaser's owners Alliston Reid and John Pilley, who are also researchers, conducted a study with their dog at Wofford College. The study showed that their dog had the same vocabulary skill as a three year old child. Their research also concluded that dogs have the ability to learn and develop a more extensive understanding of words than was once believed. They even believe the study proves our canine friends can learn words for specific objects and put them into categories according to shape and function. Chaser was also able to pick out a new object in a group of familiar ones by using reason. She knows proper names and remembered the names of toys better than they did. Reid and Pilley believe Chaser is capable of learning even more words if they take the time to teach her.

The average dog is on the same level as a two year old child, understanding around 165 words, signs, gestures and signals, like whistles. They can also count and reason. Super breeds are the dogs in the top 5 smartest breeds: the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever and Doberman Pinscher. These dogs can understand up to 250 words and are on the same level as a 2 1/2 year old child. Obviously, Chaser is well ahead of her class, but scientists believe other breeds can have a good understanding of vocabulary as well.

Dog owners who pay attention to their dogs can verify the findings of researchers doing studies on dog intelligence, even if it's on a much smaller scale. My dogs know the names of the other dogs in my pack. They know our names, and can locate a few special toys. Canines are always learning, even when we don't realize it. Most of us would be amazed how much our pets could learn, if we only took the time to teach them.

Canines are opportunistic creatures with an exceptional ability to manipulate us to get what they want. We think because we communicate with vocal language, that makes us superior to other species. However, dogs do understand our moods, language, tone of voice and our body language.

I've learned over the years how adaptable dogs are and their ability to reason. One of my dogs from years back learned, on his own, how to open the back door when he was outside. He not only opened it, he held it open for the other dogs to go through before letting himself in. My mom had a dog that knew the names of his favorite toys. We teach our dogs every time we talk to them. Scientists have shown dogs really can understand our words, and if you look into their eyes when speaking to them, you can tell they are hanging onto your every word, just like any best friend will do.

Photo by Nick Cowie

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