Does my dog understand my words?
We’ve all experienced dogs responding and acting as a result of our words. When teaching our dogs tricks, we’ll likely accompany it with a verbal command, or if we’re trying to teach them manners, then we’ll offer a verbal cue.
However, verbal commands may not actually be as beneficial to your pup as you’d expect.
And no, we’re not saying you shouldn’t speak to your dog or communicate to them verbally, but simply that a visual cue may actually be more beneficial. A mix of the two, perhaps even better.
But if that’s the case, then how do dogs actually process words? And why are verbal commands so common in training?
Let’s dive into it…
How much does your dog understand?
Well, just because your dog may respond better to visual cues, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. In fact, we know that dogs can learn basic verbal commands just from their responses to them.
A study from Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests that dogs have at least a rudimentary understanding of words they’ve been taught – and they can also differentiate words they’ve heard before and those they have not.
The study also discovers that dogs show greater responses to words they don’t know than words they do. The opposite is true for humans. This suggests that not only do dogs actually understand some of the words we say, but that they want to understand verbal cues that they don’t know yet.
The researchers suggested that dogs may show greater neural activation to a new, unknown word because they know that their owners want them to understand what they’re saying.
Still, Gregory Berns, author of ‘What it’s Like to be a Dog’, suggests that dogs also rely on other cues alongside verbal commands. Emotional expressions or gestures from their owner can help the dog understand how to respond.
The “How” versus the “What”
Many owners have asked the question – whether to themselves or to others: does my dog understand what I say, or just how I said it?
This is a tricky one, because as stated, dogs can rely on emotional expressions to determine what their owner is trying to communicate. If you’re excited, then they’ll be excited too – and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter what is being said. Similarly, if you’re in pain or hurt, then your dog may act accordingly to cheer you up (one of the many perks of having a furry friend at home).
It’s generally agreed upon that dogs have the same cognitive ability as a two year old human. When you say “NO!” to a baby, they will understand the tone and eventually the word associated with it. And the same is true for dogs.
So, while the “how” matters a great deal – and will certainly help in teaching your pup – the “what” isn’t completely insignificant.
In fact, canine researcher, Stanley Coren, believes that on average, dogs can understand around 150 words of spoken language. There’s also a correlation between a dog’s intelligence and the amount of words they can learn. Dogs in the top 20% of intelligence can learn upwards of 250 words in the right environment. So, what your dog knows also relies on what breed they are.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that while dogs do understand words, they don’t necessarily understand sentences. So, combinations of words are far less important. “Let’s go for a walk!”, for example, will result in much the same reaction as stringing random words together, providing “walk” is in there somewhere.
The “How” and the “What” together
It’s fair to say that while dogs do understand some of what we say, the “how” is equally important in conveying the message.
Dogs use both the left and right sides of their brains when listening to their humans. In a study with MRI screenings, the left and right sides of the brain were activated when the researcher said “good boy”. However, when saying the same words in a more neutral tone, only the left side of the brain responded. This shows an understanding of the word, but not the tone.
Similarly, when the same dogs heard words they didn’t recognize in an excited or happy tone, only their right side of their brain responded.
So, it’s abundantly clear that they combine both the “how” and the “what” to fully understand us. And scientists have suggested that using both also helps them understand us better, too.
Given that tone, gestures and words play a part in humans understanding one another, though, this isn’t that surprising.
So, should I be using words to communicate with my dog?
Absolutely – if that’s what you’re comfortable with and how you want to interact with your pup.
However, based on research into neural behaviour, it may also be beneficial to provide other visual cues alongside your words. Whether that’s in the form of hand gestures, facial cues, or something else entirely – it’ll have a huge benefit.
Dogs do understand words (to a degree) – we all know the reaction to the word “walk” – so there’s no reason you should stop using them. This is especially true if you’ve already taught your dog to respond to verbal commands.
But, if we’re diving into what be the most beneficial from your dog’s perspective, then you should definitely consider adding in a visual command.
It has the added benefit of helping your dog learn the trick faster, too!