Do Dogs Understand When We Talk To Them?

Hardcover Photo Book
Find the Best Deals on Hardcover Photo Book-- Shop Today & Save. Best Prices Online. Buy Now!
12 Inch Specialized Bike
Most Popular Choice--12 Inch Specialized Bike. Tons of Users Agree. This is the Best!

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
  • Movements
  • Tone
  • Posture

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.

Small Air Filter Sizes
Cheapest Prices Around--Looking for Small Air Filter Sizes? Great Selection & Price on Small Air Filter Sizes!
Antibacterial Facemasks
Most Popular Choice--Antibacterial Facemasks. Tons of Users Agree. This is the Best!

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!

Related posts

Is there such a thing as a “new” dog breed?

Published June 11, 2021

Dogs are ancient, descended from wolves, but are there any new dog breeds? First, we need to consider the meaning of breed vs. species. Breeds are specific types of dogs that humans have bred for particular purposes. All are part of the same species. Some scientists even argue that wolves and dogs are the same...

What are the least aggressive dog breeds

Published March 27, 2021

Living with a dog is a delight. Dogs provide exercise and a chance to bond with an animal that understands human emotions and commands. If you are thinking about getting a dog, there are many factors you’ll want to take into account. A breed that is compatible with your lifestyle is ideal. Potential owners who...

What is the AKC?

Published December 8, 2020

The American Kennel Club, the AKC, is a not-for-profit group that protects the purity of its dog breed registry and fights to protect the health and well-being of family pets of all breeds. The AKC has been in existence since 1884 and is the world’s oldest not-for-profit registry, with more than 190 breeds held within...

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC associates program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. We will also become members of other affiliate programs, from time to time. Whenever you click an advertisement or link, we may be compensated if a qualifying purchase is made.