Dogs are clever animals. Well-trained pups understand numerous commands. Even untrained canines pick up on words they associate with happy events. They excitedly wag their tails when they hear, “Let’s go on a walk,” or, “Time for your dinner!”
One thing’s for sure: Dogs love us and want to understand what we mean so that they can please us. But how much do they really comprehend?
Much of a dog’s comprehension abilities are the result of association. Canines can connect a lot of dots. When their human makes a particular sound, something else happens each time. If the sound “walk” usually precedes the experience of going outside, dogs remember that.
In the late 1800s, a scientist named Pavlov discovered what we now call “classical conditioning.” He was studying how much dogs salivate when given food. He found something more interesting, though. The dogs began salivating when they heard the steps of researchers who were about to bring meals. Pavlov’s canines had associated the sound of footsteps with the arrival of dinner. This sort of association is responsible for much of dogs’ understanding of language.
Classical conditioning is also why you need to train dogs in real-time. If you don’t reward or discipline a dog immediately, they won’t understand your motivation. To them, it will seem random.
Timely repetition is necessary for helping dogs associate words with meaning.
How We Say Things
Both humans and dogs interpret what people are saying through the lens of tone and body language. For instance, you can tell the difference between a sarcastic “compliment” and a genuine one. So can dogs — sort of.
They pay close attention to humans and notice all of the following:
- Body language
- Facial expression
Canines combine all those cues when determining what we mean. If you give the wrong signals, it might distract them so much that they don’t understand your words. For example, if you shout, “Good boy!” while frowning and stomping your feet, your dog will not feel like a good boy.
Some scientists think that canines understand language at the same level as 12-month-old babies. The comparison might surprise dog owners. Babies aren’t exactly known for obedience, but infants do understand a variety of words before they’re able to speak.
Depth of Understanding
Canines understand some individual words, but they don’t understand sentences. “Let’s go on a walk,” and, “It’s not time for a walk,” sound the same to a dog unless you provide extra clues with your tone of voice.
As far as breadth of vocabulary goes, most dogs can learn up to 165 basic words. Super-smart pups might understand up to 250.
Words Without Tone
Many canines do understand some words regardless of what tone you use. According to scientists who trained pups to sit still for MRI scans, canine neurology is a bit like human neurology. When you speak to a dog, language processing parts of its brain become active. These areas might activate regardless of what tone of voice you use.
The smartest pups learn words without extra clues. Experts consider border collies the most intelligent dogs, and research results agree. A border collie named Rico succeeded in learning well over 200 words, many of which he’d only heard once. He still remembered them a month later.
Combining Words & Context
Though Rico understood words regardless of tone, other dogs might find the task challenging. Some canines’ MRIs showed that speech without tonal cues didn’t activate language processing centers in the brain. However, neutral words like “what” lit up those brain regions if spoken in a sweet tone.
Regardless, even brainy dogs understand speech best of all when it comes with context clues. When talking to a dog, how you speak is at least as important as what you say — especially because using a happy voice makes your pup happy, too.
Both experience and science show that canines understand us. Their comprehension is less sophisticated than our own, but it’s still impressive. Few creatures in the animal kingdom know what it means when a human frowns or smiles, but dogs know. Even though we can’t speak the same language, we love each other. Humans and canines have been companions for thousands of years, so we must be communicating well enough!