When you talk to your dog, does he tilt his head and act as if he’s really listening to you? Do you ever wonder if he really understands what you’re saying? There is quite a bit of research that suggests he can and does understand you. In fact, many experts now believe that dogs can process and understand language at the level of a typical three-year-old, and an average dog can learn up to 160 words. With consistent training, some dogs are even able to master 200 or more words.How do they do this? Dogs learn words through a process known as fast mapping.
Essentially, when you consistently use the same word or group of words for an object or concept, the dog learns to associate those words with the object or concept you are referring to. For instance, if you say “go for a walk” every time you are preparing to take him out for a walk, he will learn to associate the phrase, or even just the word “walk,” with going for a walk, leading him to run to the door every time you use that phrase.
This same process can lead to negative associations as well. Many dogs have learned to run and hide at the mere mention of the words “bath” and “vet” because the use of those words has preceded an unpleasant experience. If there is a strong emotional experience associated with the word, whether very positive or very negative, a single experience may be all that’s needed to learn the word.
It’s not what you say…
Tone of voice also has a big impact on developing a dog’s understanding of words. When you use a harsh, firm tone of voice, the dog may not know the word, but will understand that you are voicing disapproval and will react accordingly. In the same way, you can create a positive association with a word by speaking the word in a cheerful, upbeat way that signals praise or excitement. The proper use of tone can be a very powerful tool when training your dog, allowing you to alter a dog’s response by altering your tone of voice.
Most fascinating of all, a study done by German researchers in 2005 on a Border Collie named Rico, indicates that some dogs not only learn specific words associated with specific objects, but they are also able to think about what is being said and understand it well enough to learn new words by process of elimination.
Rico was asked to retrieve toys from another room by name. When an unfamiliar toy was placed in the room and Rico was asked to retrieve the toy by giving him an unfamiliar word, he retrieved the correct toy, indicating that he understood the unfamiliar word referred to the unfamiliar toy by eliminating the toys he knew by name. Later, when more unfamiliar toys were added and he was asked to retrieve the toy with the new word he had been given, he correctly retrieved the new toy again, showing that he had already learned the new word and associated it with the new toy.
While your furry friend may not be a super dog, with consistency and a bit of training, you can feel confident knowing that your dog really does understand what you’re saying when you talk to him.