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Can Dogs Really Understand Us?

 by danielle on 19 Jul 2014 |
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It seems uncanny the amount dogs seem to understand when we chat to them around the house. The words ‘walkies,’ ‘treat’ or ‘dinner’ is usually met with much tail wagging and spinning about. And that is not to mention commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘beg’ and of course their own name.
But can dogs really understand what we are talking about? Or is something else at play?
It’s not a fantasy that dogs associate words with actions, incoming food or a trip to the park. Dogs can develop a very large vocabulary by animal standards of human words – estimates place the average dog’s understanding at 165 words which can go higher if they are properly trained. Border Collie, Chaser is up to 1000 words and fellow border collie Rico is master of over 360.


What's more, they have both been proven to be able to engage in a process known as ‘fast-mapping’ once thought unique to humans. The dogs were given a toy box, filled with toys known to them except for one. When asked for a ‘rope’ or ‘ball’ they happily retrieved the items they knew those words meant. When given a new word that was foreign to them, they concluded it must mean the item they had never seen – a revolutionary display of canine intelligence.
However, the canine understanding of words is not quite as involved as our own comprehensions. For example, whilst a dog may understand the word ‘walk,’ it, to their doggie brain, simply means going to the local park they always go, or other experiences of outings they have stored in their memory. The idea that ‘walk’ or ‘walking’ refers to the actual movement of walking even when they do so around the house is beyond their understanding. Words with concrete meanings that relate to actions the dog particularly enjoys or has received a memorable scolding for are the most likely to be retained in their memory and understood.

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Tone and body language play a big part in how dogs relate to and understand their owners, as the majority of canine conversation is non-verbal. If told in a friendly, happy voice “You are a horrid creature” many dogs will be thrilled and take it as great praise.

So - whilst dogs are clever, their powers of understanding do have their limits. For example, some owners, upon arriving home from a day of work, have found their shoe collection demolished on the floor by their energetic friend. Holding up a shoe and shouting ‘shoe – no!’ their pet appears thoroughly sorry and seems to ‘know what he did’. However this may not be true.


The dog is more likely to be picking up on the word ‘No!’ (which they remember from past acts of mischief leads to a time outside and no pats for a while), the owner’s aggressive body posture and unhappy tone when showing submissive behaviour rather than comprehending the word ‘shoe’ or making the connection between their current problem and the actions of hours past. Even if the shoe is shown to them, dog memory has been shown to be very specific, with an object outside of its initial environment and position seeming like something else entirely.
So yes, we can talk to our dogs, but their understanding and the way they understand language is different to our own capacities which for their sake needs to be held in the forefront of our minds. 



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