Dogs and language: How much can they understand?

We talk to our dogs all the time, and there are times when they clearly understand the words we are saying. “Sit,” leads to a quick rump on the floor; “Let’s go for a ride,” causes them to run for the door; “Get your ball,” sends them scampering across the yard.

But do you ever wonder how much of what we say our dogs really understand? Are they taking in the meaning of our words or sitting with head cocked to one side because they love us and know we often deliver yummy treats after these command words?

Talking to dogs

Some people say it’s not so much what we say to our dogs as how we say it that they are responding to. They believe that our dogs are watching us for behavior clues and responding to our tone of voice. If we offer a ride in a happy tone of voice and jingle our car keys, the dog has put together their learned behavior and will run to the door. Similarly, a sharp ‘down’ command might lead to a conditioned response rather than true understanding of the word.

Tone of voice and body language certainly seem to play an important role in communicating with our dogs. The cautionary tale of the ‘Clever Hans effect’ has colored a lot of research into dogs’ language abilities. In the early 1900s, a German horse named Hans was thought to be listening to his trainer and responding to questions or doing math calculations by tapping his hoof. However, it was ultimately found that Hans was responding to tiny verbal or physical clues from his questioner in order to get the right answer.

More recently, however, scientists have determined that along with watching us for clues, dogs are also listening to us for words that they know. There is evidence that they learn certain words in conjunction with outcomes associated with our tone of voice or gestures. Using MRI technology, a neuroeconomics professor at Emory University found that the language receptor parts of the dog brain activate in a similar fashion to human brains when words are introduced. Their limited linguistic capacity means they take in language quickly but don’t capture nuance. For example, a dog will respond to ‘sit’ in the same way as they will to ‘sid’. This is similar to the way young children initially acquire language, and it seems most dogs have the linguistic capacity of a 16–18-month-old baby.

Even though we all know our own dog is the most special, there are certain dogs who show an incredible facility for learning language. While it is rare, there have been notable dogs who have learned hundreds of object words in addition to the command words most dogs know.



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