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September 07, 2022
Think about how happily your dog wags their tail when you tell them, “Good job.” It’s obvious they know what you’re saying, right? But is it really what you’re saying or how you’re saying it? And what about your body language when you speak to your pup? Do dogs understand what people say, or is it a combination of several things?
Many scientists believe that dogs can understand what people say, learning the meaning of many different words. Others think it’s more about how people say things and the tone of voice rather than what they say. But dogs also pick up many meanings from human body language. Most likely, your pup can get what you’re telling them through a combination of all three elements.
Researchers are always delving deeper into understanding the communication between dogs and humans. For now, it appears clear that dogs understand a lot of what people say through listening and watching their human companions.
There are all sorts of things people wonder about their dogs, from whether they can smile to why they eat poop. But one of the biggest things pet parents ponder is whether their dog understands what they say.
Dogs do have the ability to learn many words, and trained pups can build a vocabulary of around 150 to 160 words. Some can even go above and beyond this number, like Chaser, the Border Collie that knows over 1,000 words. (This is undoubtedly an extraordinary number. Most highly trained dogs reach vocabularies of around 250 words).
Dogs typically learn words through repetition and associating them with various objects they become familiar with. Some familiar words that many dogs learn and understand are:
Various studies point to dogs genuinely understanding what we say. Your pup can accumulate an average vocabulary of around 90 to 100 words. If you spend a lot of time training your dog, this can bump up even more.
A study in Hungary employed MRI scans of dogs’ brains to show that dogs could pick up on the word, no matter what inflection was used to say it. Considering this, it seems like your dog does get what you mean.
For example, you might say, “where’s your leash?” to your pup in an excited tone, and they run to their leash. They don’t grab their ball or stand by their food dish waiting for dinner.
But then, you say the exact phrase calmly, and your dog runs over to their leash again. This seems to show that they understand you’re saying leash (and hoping you’re about to take them on a walk).
Of course, all dogs are different and trained at various levels. So, your dog might understand more or less than another. But lots of research points to dogs being capable of understanding what you say.
A dog will learn words in whatever language they are taught. They could also potentially learn different words for the same thing.
For example, if you show your dog a ball and say the word “ball,” they eventually learn what a ball is. If you start using a different language to refer to the ball, your pup could likely associate that world with the ball. In this way, dogs can learn a foreign language, although it might get confusing if you try to assign too many words to the same object.
If someone adopts a dog that came from a home that spoke another language, there will be a learning curve in the beginning. But the pup will eventually learn the language of their new family.
It’s likely a bit of both. A study in Current Biology found that dogs potentially differentiate between various components of human speech. In other words, they can distinguish between what you’re saying and other factors, such as the emotional tone of your voice.
If you speak excitedly and positively, your dog will most likely respond in kind. However, if you speak this way to tell your dog you’re going to the vet, they might still tuck their tail and run.
But, overall, how you say something significantly impacts how your dog reads it. This concept stands true in human-to-human communication though as well. You can tell someone you’re happy for them, but if you say it in a grumpy way, will they believe you? So, how you speak plays a role in how your dog interprets your communication.
Just like dogs communicate things to humans through body language, people do the same thing. Your dog can pick up on cues based on gestures, how you hold your body, etc. A study has also shown that dogs can read human emotional facial expressions.
Dogs’ brains share a lot of similarities with human brains, even dreaming while they sleep. So if you’re holding a tense posture, your dog will likely pick up on your stress. If your body language is loose and comfortable, your pup will understand that you’re relaxed and in a good mood, etc.
What is dog speak? It’s when you talk in a high-pitched, happy voice and use dog-relevant words. It’s basically the same way people talk to babies, usually referred to as infant-directed speech (IDS). Suddenly, we turn into goofy-sounding people making exaggerated happy faces and speaking in a super-excited tone.
A study published in Animal Cognition found that dogs may prefer this type of communication, labeled as dog-directed speech (DDS). However, it also suggested that puppies prefer DDS more than adult dogs. When people spoke to adult dogs using adult-directed speech (ADS), the older dogs didn’t seem to have a preference.
Although studies are ongoing and there are debates about how exactly dogs understand humans, your pup gets you. The general consensus is your canine companion can understand what you say. It’s likely a combination of what you say, especially when you use familiar dog-relevant words and how you say them.
How you say something includes your voice's emotional tone, facial expressions, and body language. Dogs take in everything you’re sending their way and put it together to grasp what you’re communicating to them.
So, yes, your dog understands what you’re telling them. But you don’t have to worry about them telling anyone your secrets. It’s not like your dog is listening to all your conversations and comprehending every word.
For more helpful insight into understanding your faithful canine pal, check out the rest of our blog. You can find lots of valuable tips and information on how to raise a happy and healthy pup.
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