Puppy at the beach

Can dogs understand words?

When I decided on the subject of a dog’s understanding of human language, I had just been in conversation with a neighbour who believes that dogs comprehend very little of human language. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, dogs are very intelligent animals and they understand a lot more than you might think.

Dogs can associate words with actions

Dogs can’t process language in the same way that humans do but they are able to recognise familiar sounds. They then associate those familiar sounds with actions or behaviours. This is what makes it possible for your dog to understand phrases like “let’s go for a walk“.  Even if your dog didn’t catch every word in the sentence, they’ll definitely have associated the term ‘walk’ with going outside. That’s why it’s important to use the same phrases repeatedly when talking to your dog. If you suddenly use a different word or phrase they will either ignore you or be quite confused. For this reason it’s best to avoid teaching your dog two words that mean the same thing.

A study into how dogs process speech

In 2014, scientists in Hungary undertook a study using 13 dogs of different breeds specially trained to remain motionless in an MRI scanner.  This experiment provided an opportunity to see the dog’s brain activity when the researchers spoke to each dog. The results of the study which were published in the journal Science found that dogs’ brains were similar to humans. The right side handles emotion and the left side handles meaning. The study concluded that dogs understand praise regardless of the tone in which it is spoken. The study also found that dogs are only fully satisfied when both the left and right side of the brain (meaning and emotion) were matched. In other words, the delivery of the message is just as important as the meaning.

Every dog will have their favourite words

You will know from your own experiences that your dog recognises specific phrases. For instance, we’ve named some of Poppy’s toys and if you tell her to go and get “Monkey” or “Ratty” she will go to the toy box and find that specific toy. Very clever! That said, she’s a Lhasa Apso, so she’ll only do that if she’s ‘in the mood’! Dogs will certainly have some particular favourite words that they will associate with very positive experiences. Words that reinforce positivity like “good boy”, “walkies” and “treat” will be at the top of their list. Likewise they’ll probably give you the ‘puppy dog eyes’ if you use more negative language and harsher tones like “bad” or “naughty”.

“Where’s that cat?”

Whilst there are now many words that we know Poppy understands, the most fascinating example was around cats. Poppy knows exactly what a cat is. We don’t even own a cat. If you tell her there’s a cat in the garden, it triggers a response that results in her bolting down the garden to investigate! By listening to human speech she has managed to make this association by herself. I think the moral of the story is, your dog is probably listening to every word you say! And they probably understand more than you think they do. Do you ever get the feeling that dogs know when you’re talking about them? They know…

Dogs are great at making associations

We all know that our dogs associate spoken words with actions or behaviours. They can read our faces and know what sort of mood we’re in. Do dogs understand concepts though? For example, if you placed two toys on the floor and asked your dog to fetch the bigger of the two, would they understand? Could they choose between two different coloured balls?  Recent studies suggest that this could be possible but not without very intensive training.

This is a very interesting topic and I would love to hear from other dog owners about their own experiences.


James is a social media manager, dog owner and enthusiast.

1 Comment

  • I have had several dogs to whom I have been able to teach basic abstract words. These have included “smart”, “opposite”, and “word.” One of these dogs was Barney, a Lhasa Apso mix. He was a wonderful dog, but it was an added treat that I was able to teach him this way and that he loved to learn.

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