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

Sophia even responded correctly when the order of the words was reversed – for instance, she fetched the ball whether she heard “ball fetch” or “fetch ball.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Dogalini to master this.

But here’s the thing. Ramos and Ades practiced with Sophia 2 or 3 times a day, 3 to 6 days a week. In each phase of the training, they did more than 100 practice sessions, each with 20 to 40 reps. Though Sophia did much better than chance, she never responded correctly 100 percent of the time -- at her best, she scored 80 percent. (The researchers made some technical mistakes in their training; maybe Sophia would have done better otherwise.) And when she was faced with a new combination of words she had already learned, her performance fell apart completely. Perhaps she could not respond flexibly because she had already learned these words in an inflexible pattern.

What about us? When we communicate with our dogs, we’re often using single words, or consistent patterned sounds (“Wannagoforawalk?”) that might as well be single words. We’re also using our own body language and tone of voice. Ramos and Ades were careful to factor out these other kinds of cues, so Sophia had only words to go on. Next time you’re tempted to get angry at your dog for seemingly disobeying or ignoring you, remember Sophia, and how hard she had to work to learn a few two-word sentences. Let’s not punish our dogs for failing to be human. They’re brilliant, valuable, and worthy of our care and respect just as they are: dogs.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock

Bottom Photo by Antoni Font/Sebastià i Jaume Mathevat (Fotografia de la pàgina) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



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).