I’m not trying to brag here, but I have an incredible vocabulary. So much so that when I’m playing Word Battle on Facebook, I’m often accused of using a “cheat app.” For the record, I don’t use an app, and I think it’s pretty pathetic when people have to cheat at a free game to somehow make themselves feel good.
I came by my vocabulary honestly. I attribute it to being raised by a stay-at-home mother who never “baby talked” me. My formative years were filled with conversation, largely one-sided in the beginning. My mother would put me in my playpen, or sit me in my high chair, and then all day long, I’d be hearing things like “It’s time to make Dad’s lunch. I’m going to make him a sandwich, Ash. This is bread. This is ham, and this is cheese. Now, I’m going to get out the mayonnaise, because ham and cheese sandwiches without mayo aren’t all that good.”
Later on, it would be “It’s time to do the laundry, Ash. When we do laundry, we separate whites and colors, and if the whites are really dirty, we have to use bleach to get the stains out. This is bleach. This is laundry detergent. See how I’m adding the bleach and laundry soap to the water before I put the clothes in? That’s because if you put the bleach in on top of the clothes, you’ll ruin the clothes.”
Was My Mom Nuts?
Well, maybe a bit. I never claimed to come from perfectly stable breeding stock. Thanks to Mom’s constant nattering, though, I learned to talk at a very young age, and was forming complete sentences long before my peers. Once I started school, I actually had difficulty communicating with some of my classmates, who would complain that “Ash uses too many big words!” I’d snark back with “Use some of those words to teach your dog; he’s probably smarter than you are!”
I wasn’t a nice kid.
I know, you’re wondering what I’m trying to get at here. It’s simply this – many animal behaviorists believe that dogs have an extensive vocabulary. Dogs might know as many words as a toddler, although of course we don’t really have any way of proving or disproving that theory, because dogs don’t speak human languages.
I firmly believe that they understand a lot of human language, though. I’ve seen it over and over, probably because I take the same approach with Janice and Leroy as my mother did with me – I’m constantly talking to my dogs, and I don’t mean “baby talk.”
A typical day at my house involves my waking up, telling the dogs “Okay guys, time to get off the bed,” and then heading off to the kitchen to make coffee before starting my day. Then, I tell them what I’m doing. “We’re trying out a new blend of coffee today, guys. I’m thinking eggs for breakfast. Would you guys like an egg, too? Okay, one for Leroy, and one for Janice! I’m going to scramble my eggs today. I think I’ll have some toast, too.”
And on it goes, until the end of the day, when I’m saying something like “Okay, my work is all done. Who wants to watch ‘Supernatural’ on Netflix? A little down time before we go to bed.”
I’m always talking, and I know my dogs are learning words, and even how those words are strung together to make sentences. I’m not really working on a “words to teach your dog” campaign – it just seems to happen naturally.
How do I know this?
I know that my dogs don’t just have vocabulary – they have a comprehension of language – because of things that I’ve seen over and over. Case in point – one day, Leroy grabbed one of my slippers, and without even thinking, I said “Leroy, you put that slipper down!” He did.
I didn’t use the usual command, which would be something along the lines of “Leave it.” I spoke to Leroy using a complete sentence, and he responded in a way that indicated he understood what I was saying.
Another time, I wanted Janice to get off a certain piece of furniture. I’d recently found a gorgeous Eastlake settee at a flea market, and bought it for a fraction of its real worth. I’m usually fine with dogs being on furniture, but this piece was special. I’d trained Janice and Leroy to understand that they could have pretty much their choice of any other furnishings in the house, but the Eastlake settee was off limits. I did this using traditional training methods, but one day, Janice decided that maybe she could get away with hopping up on the settee.
I didn’t snap out a command, because I’m so used to speaking to my dogs in sentences. In a perfectly conversational tone, I said, “Janice, you know you’re not supposed to be up there.”
On another occasion, I’d invited Neila over for dinner, and I was making a stir fry. Leroy decided that he wanted to play, and kept coming over to the stove with his ball in his mouth, and nudging me.
Well, you can’t exactly stop in the middle of making a stir fry, so again, without thinking, I said “Go find Neila; she’ll play with you.” He did, and she did.
Vocabulary? Comprehension of sentences? I think so.
Now, if I don’t have you convinced that dogs can understand words and interpret them in the context of a sentence, let me introduce you to Chaser, who is known as the Dog of a Thousand Words.
Chaser was a Border Collie (I’m sad to say “was,” because Chaser has gone to the Rainbow Bridge). He was quite a remarkable dog, though. His owner, Dr. John W. Pilley, was able to teach Chaser more than a thousand words, and in doing so, pretty much redefined everything we thought we knew about canine intelligence.
In his book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of a Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, Dr. Pilley describes how he taught Chaser all those words, and explains how you can do the same thing with your dog. He says that the key is lots of praise, and lots of play, as well as repetition – apparently there might me more to it than just yammering away like I do!
Dr. Pilley maintains that any dog can learn language skills, with proper guidance. He suggests that for too long, we’ve assumed that dogs lack emotions and understanding, and that because of those cognitive deficits, they can’t really learn language. He does agree with me on one thing, though – you have to keep talking if you expect that you’ll find words to teach your dog, and help them to put them in the context of sentences.
How It’s Done
Dr. Pilley says that any dog can build a vocabulary and learn how to interpret full sentences. He emphasizes, though, that your tone is very important. Dogs aren’t going to respond well to shouting or harsh tones. If you use a happy tone, your dog will want to listen to you.
It’s also important, when considering words to teach your dog, to minimize distractions. Just as an example, you might show your dog an object (a ball, perhaps), and with nobody around to cause a distraction, keep showing your dog the object and repeating its name. This is the first step. You’re working to build a vocabulary, and later on, you can get into working with context and sentences.
Once your dog knows the name of the object, introduce something new. If the dog knows what a ball is, toss the ball toward the dog and say “fetch,” or “catch.” If the dog grabs the ball when it’s thrown, say “Catch the ball!” If he misses the throw but runs off after the ball and takes it in his mouth, say “Fetch the ball!” Repeat, repeat and repeat, and use lots of praise.
Now, test the dog. Find out if he really knows the name of the object. Put the ball in a pile with other toys, and tell your dog “Fetch the ball.” If he doesn’t get it right on the first try, that’s not the end of the world. Show him the ball, and praise him when he brings it instead of another toy. You want him to understand that “ball” is a specific thing, as distinguished from “Frisbee,” “rope toy,” or whatever.
Then, do the same exercise, playing with other toys, until you’re confident that your dog knows the difference – he knows that when you’re asking for the ball, you want the round thing, not the rope thing. The first step toward “conversation” is finding the right words to teach your dog.
Play is the key to learning, so then play with your dog using the object, repeating its name and continuing to praise your pet
To make sure that your dog really “gets it,” recruit other people. Have a friend ask your dog to bring the ball. If he does, you’ve just taught your dog two words, “bring,” and “ball,” and given them context. The dog knows that when he hears “Bring the ball,” that’s exactly what he does – he brings the ball. He doesn’t just pick it up and then leave it. He also doesn’t go for another toy. He knows that you want him to, quite simply, bring the ball!
Games that are centered on finding, fetching, and chasing toys work best for teaching vocabulary. Using these sorts of games, Dr. Pilley taught Chaser, the Dog of a Thousand Words, to identify all manner of objects, and to “bring,” “leave,” “take” and so on. What’s really amazing here is that Dr. Pilley even found that Chaser could identify certain items simply on the basis of exclusion – he’d make a pile of toys, all of which Chaser knew the names for, and then toss in a toy that she’d never had before. Then he’d say “Go get [insert name of unfamiliar toy]. By process of elimination, knowing that each toy in the pile had a name, Chaser would bring the toy that hadn’t been named!
And yet, people will tell you that dogs don’t reason. Certainly, Chaser did. She figured, “Well, I know ball, and I know stick, and I know doll, and I know rawhide chew, so if this toy doesn’t have a name I know, it must be the one Dad wants me to bring!” Chaser got this concept at the remarkably early age of just five months.
Dr. Pilleycame to the conclusion that Chaser was actually able to learn about ten words in any given day. That’s really remarkable, when you consider that this is the level at which a 9-year-old child picks up new words. Before Dr. Pilley published his research, it was generally believed that dogs couldn’t learn any faster than a toddler – in other words, picking up two or three words a day.
How Remarkable is This?
It’s pretty remarkable indeed. In fact, it opens up a whole new way of relating to our dogs. In fact, it means that we might have to reconsider everything that we’ve always believed regarding language as being the sole provenance of humans.
What Inspired Dr. Pilley?
Before Chaser, Dr. Pilley owned a German Shepherd/BorderCollie mix named Yasha. He was in the habit of taking Yasha to his classes, and also taking the dog everywhere with him outside of his work. Sadly, Yasha passed, and Dr. Pilley was heartbroken. Yasha was 16 years old, which is a pretty good run, but you never get enough time with your beloved dogs. Dr. Pilley vowed never to have another dog, because Yasha’s death had been so traumatic. Ultimately, though, as happens with so many of us, Dr. Pilley found another dog to fall in love with – Chaser, the canine who became known as the Dog of a Thousand Words. And Dr. Pilley continued the work that he’d begun with Yasha.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Pilley to renew his interest in training dogs to understand language. Barely into her new home, Chaser displayed energy, loyalty and intelligence, and Dr. Pilley was back in the game, teaching words and sentences to dogs.
What words did she learn? Here are just a few: “Listerine,” “Boomerang,” “Groovy,” “Clodhopper,” “Lamaze” “Holy Grail, “Santa Claus,” “Armadillo,” and “Redneck Pheasant.” I could go on and on, because after all, this is the Dog of a Thousand Words!
Then, Chaser began to learn context. She learned, through repetition, praise and rewards, the difference between “Little Frisbee” and “Big Frisbee.” In other words, she learned about differences and context.
Can Any Dog Learn Language?
Let’s face it, some dogs are smarter than others. So it might not be true that any dog can learn how to string words together into sentences, and understand what those sentences mean. Chaser was obviously exceptional, and that’s why she became known as the dog who re-defined canine/human communication.
Maybe your dog won’t learn language to that extent. It takes a lot of patience and persistence to affect that level of communication. It’s worth a try, though.
The Final Word
Do dogs really understand language? Can they be taught to understand it?
I think they can. My own experiences are proof.
Now, Leroy, I’m getting tired. I’ve been writing all day, and it would be really great if someone brought me my slippers. The blue ones, please, not the red ones that we just took out of the washer.
Good boy, Leroy!