Do Dogs Understand Language?


Do you talk to your dogs the way I do? I find a lot of the time I’m pretty conversational. I don’t exactly speak in commands the way most people do. I’m more like, “Okay, guys, enough Netflix, let’s go to bed now,” or, “I’m going to the store; anyone want to come?” or, “Don’t you even think about getting into that garbage bag!” And they seem to know what I’m saying.

I guess it’s just the way I am – I don’t talk AT my dogs, I talk TO them. Maybe I’m just not around people enough. Sometimes, though, I think that Janice and Leroy know what I’m saying, even when it’s in sentences like, “Get your big Boxer ass on the floor; I’ve told you often enough that I don’t want you on that sofa,” as opposed to, oh, I dunno, maybe just “OFF!”

I guess I started wondering about this the other day when Neila came by for coffee. I’d left a pork roast out on the countertop to defrost, and Leroy was eyeballing it. By the time he put his snout up to counter level, I said, “Leroy, just don’t even think about it.” Leroy looked ashamed, and slunk off into a corner. Neila said, “Do you think he really knew what you were saying?”

I thought about it. Maybe it was just my tone. But on the other hand, if we accept what most animal behaviorists tell us, which is that dogs do develop vocabulary, and operate on the age of the average toddler, maybe Leroy was processing English.

My pondering led me, as it often does, to a bit of vigorous Googling, and I came upon an article by Julie Hecht. She theorizes that dogs understand a lot more than we realize. In fact, she’s done a lot of research on the topic, and points to a study conducted by Péter Pongráczof Budapest’s Family Dog Project and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest. Pongrácz surveyed 37 dog owners, all of whom reported phrases – not words, phrases – that they believed their dogs knew and understood.

The Dogs

The dogs in the study were Chaser, Rico, Sofia, Paddy, Bailey and Betsy, and all were believed by their owners to be exceptionally smart. All of the dogs were able to identify a number of different objects. In fact, Chaser was reported to know the names of over a thousand objects.That alone proved that dogs were capable of long-term memory.

The thing is, though, that knowing language is much more than just being able to say, “I understand that this is my green ball.” Can a dog, for instance, connect nouns with verbs? Does Chase know what it means when his person says, “Get your green ball?”

Maybe he does. But is it anything more than just training? Does he know the individual meaning of each word? In short, does Chase understand English? Does he know how to communicate the way humans do?

Some animal behaviorists believe that being able to put a noun and verb and adjective in context is proof of understanding language. In other words, if the dog can understand that you want him to get the green ball, that’s proof positive that he connect nouns, verbs and adjectives. He has language. Others argue that it’s just training, just a response to the way that the words are strung together.

But what is language for humans if not a way of stringing together words? If I know to go and get you the green ball, do I somehow understand the language in a way that a dog who does the same thing somehow does not understand? Or do we just want to feel in some way that we are superior to dogs by virtue of grasping language independent of commands?

Alexandra Horowitz is another dog behaviorist, and in her book, Inside of a Dog, she points out that dogs are very much capable of understanding language in context. She says, though, that it is often just a possibility, and not necessarily what dogs will do in the course of everyday living.

What About Your Dog?

Whether or not your dog understands English is probably going to depend on you. In other words, the more vocabulary your dog builds up will depend on how often, and in what way, you talk to him. Research has shown that when dogs are spoken to conversationally, their vocabulary builds.  It has a lot to do with the way that you introduce words. If you use a lot of “object” words, then your dog is not going to develop a good vocabulary. So what you want to do, if you want your dog to learn English, is go beyond those object words – “Ball” becomes the more conversational, “Get your ball,” “Drop your ball,” or, “Bring me your ball.” Then you add words in like, “Bring me your green ball.” You’re building vocabulary.

The Challenges

Of course it’s not always easy to show dogs how to differentiate between terms. Different words, obviously, have different meanings. And you sometimes hear them in different ways. That’s true whether you’re a human or a dog. For instance, does “stick” mean something that you pick up and play with, or does it mean a task that you don’t give up on no matter how hard it might be? If we have trouble with the nuances of language, how hard can it be for a dog?

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Is it Just Sounds?

Now, when you think of dogs processing language, you have to ask yourself too, are they responding to actual words, or just sounds? Have you ever told your dog something like, “Go find Dad,” and been amazed when he does just that? Is he really responding to your request that he go find the main male in his life, or is it something in your tone of voice that he’s reacting to? What factors are actually at work here?

The thing is, dogs react to our tone of voice, our body position, the tone of our speech and so much more. So how do you know if your dog is really responding to what you’re asking him to do, or just responding to tone?

Well, I suppose you could switch things up if you really wanted to know.Say the same thing in a different voice and see what kind of response you get. I’m put in mind of a friend of mine who is an Odinist. She likes to recite the Warrior’s Prayer for Valhalla – “Go and tell my mother, my father, my sisters and brothers, do not weep for me, for tonight I have fought well, and I will dine with Odin in the Halls of Valhalla.” She can say that prayer loud and strong, or in a perfectly conversational tone, and no matter how she says it, her dog barks loud and long. I think that dog knows language.

Now it could be rhythm and intonation, but since she varies it, I doubt that. It could also be a contextual cue, where someone is saying something and the dog naturally responds. But I think, given that she varies it so much, the dog is grasping words.

The thing is, dogs get so much information from what we send to them in terms of context, tone and body language. They grasp what we’re saying. They pay attention. And they learn, and develop language.


So, would a dog respond to gibberish? Of course. They do. That’s where they’re picking up tone as opposed to actual words. They’re probably reacting more to emotions than to actual words. A lot of people think that their dogs are word-savvy, but the fact is that it’s usual in context. For instance, you tell your dog that it’s “bedtime” when it gets dark. The dog is not connecting the actual words but he does know that it’s dark and time to go to bed. It’s not the words that are making the connection – it’s what’s going on.

Even If They Do Understand…

…What do the words mean? Dogs can probably understand verbs, but they might interpret them differently than we do. For instance, does “Sit” mean, “Put your butt on the floor,” or does it mean, “Hunker down a little lower”? In other words, does your dog really get it? Do the words mean the same thing to him that they do to you?

There’s a pretty good chance that they don’t. The words might not mean the same thing.

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The Final Word

We all talk to our dogs. Sometimes we speak in commands, and sometimes we’re conversational. Your dog might not know what you mean, because the words could carry different meanings. But when you speak to your dog, you should consider that the words might very well have meanings. No one really knows how much vocabulary a dog has. So speak to your dog in context, and use the right tone. Maybe your dog isn’t exactly carrying a dictionary around with him, but he still might know what you’re trying to say. Communicate respectfully and well. Tell your dog what’s on your mind and try to listen to what he’s saying. In the final analysis, good communication between you and your dog is important. Don’t close up the lines of communication.