Dogs and Words

Can dogs really understand "language"? The Dog Trainer explores how close dogs can get to human communication.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
3-minute read

How many people here think their dog understands every word you say? Phew, I can’t see through all the hands waving in the air.

No question – dogs are expert communicators. They hear “Wanna go for a walk?” and start bouncing. They hear “What happened to the kitchen garbage?” and they slink around. They signal “Let’s play!” by lowering their heads and shoulders and sticking their butts up in the air. That last even qualifies as a fancy “meta-signal,” a signal that changes the meaning of what follows it. A play bow “explains” that ensuing growls, snaps, and pounces mean the very opposite of “This is war.” I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve already devoted to canine body language.

As for dogs and words, dogs absolutely do learn that certain sounds coming out of our mouths have meaning. “Sit” = “Plunk your butt on the floor and you might get a cookie,” “Come” = “Run over to me as fast as your little legs will carry you [and you might get a cooki,” “Ball” designates that very slightly squishy round object that is so much fun to chase.

Language, though, is another story. When we use language, we combine sounds in different ways – sometimes in fixed patterns, but often not: “Who left the rotten fish on top of the microwave last week?” You understood that, even though you’d never seen those words combined that way before. Dogalini would not.

Can Dogalini understand any “language” at all? Probably yes, but it’s an uphill climb. In a study by Daniela Ramos and Cesar Ades, of the University of São Paulo, a pet dog named Sophia was taught the meanings of some words (“ball,” “fetch,” “bottle,” and “point,” for instance) and was able to respond correctly to combinations of the words.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).