Do Dogs Understand Words?


By Linda Cole

Most of us who own dogs or cats swear they understand every word we say to them. Dogs tilt their head and listen with eager eyes, and cats respond with an acknowledging meow or tail flick which I’m sure means, “Of course I understand exactly everything you are saying.” In reality, they probably understand only a fraction of what I say, but I know cats and dogs understand words.

Research has shown that dogs are more intelligent than what was once believed. It’s possible your dog’s intelligence equals that of a three year old child. Dogs are just as capable of understanding what we say as parrots or apes, two species considered to be the “Einsteins” of the animal kingdom. Some breeds are considered more intelligent than others, but most dogs are not purebreds. Does a mixed breed have an advantage over purebreds when it comes to intelligence? Do these dogs understand words just as well as their purebred counterparts?

Dogs have an advantage over their owners. Not only do they understand the laws of the pack, they also understand our tone of voice and body language. Body language and tone may contribute more to how dogs interpret our words than what we realize, but dogs understand words and can learn signals from whistles and hand signs. Herding dogs work with their handlers through a series of specific whistles and voice commands. Police dogs and rescue dogs are taught the language of search and rescue, and therapy dogs understand how to assist humans in everyday activities from learned signals and words.

It’s believed an average dog can understand up to 165 words and count up to 5. Some dogs may be able to understand even more words. My mom had a mixed breed named Ben. He was so mixed even our vet couldn’t figure out the possible breeds, but he was smart as a whip. Ben loved toys and my mother loved buying them for him. A green frog was his favorite and he understood each toy had a name. Each night, mom had Ben pick up his toys. It became a game Ben loved to play. Mom called out the name of a toy and Ben picked up each one correctly every time and put it away in his toy box. I learned from him that dogs understand words and can associate those words with an object or toy.

I have two mixed Jack Russell terrier sisters who know the names of the other members in our dog pack. Just as Lassie knew who Timmy was by name, they know and understand the names we use to call the other dogs. They look at the dog just as we would do in a group of people when someone’s name is called out.

Of course our dogs learn to associate words by commands we give them. Down, go outside, stay, go for a walk, fetch or any other word or phrase dogs learn through repetition. However, understanding words and actually knowing what they mean are two different things.

Researchers question whether our pets have the mental capacity to understand love, for instance. Can they really be capable of understanding something as complex and abstract as love or hate? I know dogs are just like us in that they seem to like or dislike certain people. This could be due to body language, protective posturing by the dog or other factors such as unpleasant odors like perfume or other smells on a person. I also know when I cuddle with my dogs and look them in the eyes when I tell them I love them or give them praise, there’s subtle ear flicks and a different look in their eyes like they did understand what I said and what it meant. Of course, that too could be simple association with my body language, tone of voice or actions because I’m also scratching their ears or back or giving them a kiss and hug.

Maybe one day research will be able to determine if our pets can learn abstract concepts, but at the end of the day, does it really matter how much they may or may not understand what we say? Talking to our pets is good for them as well as for us. I think most pets actually treasure our conversations as only they can. Positive attention is always good. They may not understand why your boyfriend/girlfriend is such a loser or why you don’t have time to play ball right now, but dogs understand words more than what was once thought. So enjoy your next conversation with your dog, but remember, they may understand what you are saying more than you realize.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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