Do You Talk to Your Dog? And How Many Words Does Your Dog Understand?

by Barbara Murray
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It seems most dogs' owners talk to their dogs, some going so far as to tell his or her furry best friend all their troubles. We know that when we talk to our dogs we have an immediate attentive and sympathetic listener -- well, most of the time. More on that in a minute. Our dogs are not going to repeat anything we say. And finally, we're not going to be judged or criticized for what we say. What more could we ask for in a good listener.

It does seem if I want to pour out my troubles, Chance is my best listener. He looks directly at me while I'm talking and tilts his head like what I'm saying is soooo interesting. Of course, I've had dogs, and still do, that by all appearances couldn't seem to care less about what I'm saying, especially if I'm trying to get one of them to do something considered personally unpleasant, like take a bath or get nails trimmed. Toby is notorious for ignoring me when he needs medicine and he has selective hearing also when a bath is mentioned.

How Many Words Do Dogs Know?

So how many of those words that we're saying does our dog recognize and actually understand?

The answer depends on whom you ask. For several years, the consensus was that dogs understood around 165 words on average. This came about after Animal Planet published an article in May 2012 quoting that number as what an expert in canine intelligence stated as the typical. It was then quoted widely all over the Web.

That may be the average for the average dog, but for pet owners that talk to their dogs daily and consistently, the total number of words a dog can understand has been shown to be much more than a mere 165.

Certain breeds are believed to be better learners than others. For example, border collies are thought to have a propensity for learning and understanding a large vocabulary.

One border collie, now famous in the dog world, Chaser, showed that she knew 1,022 words. Her owner, John Pilley, a psychologist at Wofford College, published a paper on Chaser in the February 2011 Behavioural Processes Journal. Apparently Pilley worked diligently at teaching Chaser the names of toys.

Words My Pup Knows

Dylan turns and smiles for the cameraSetting aside the fact that the dog was learning the names of toys, the fact remains she was learning words consistently. After reading this, I got to thinking about how many words my pup Dylan knows well. He's 10 months old now and still learning new things about the world every day. When I think about the words he clearly understands, it's obvious each one has something to do with something that is important to him.

I guess the first word he leaned was his name -- Dylan. He will also answer to Dyl and Pickles sometimes. That came about by calling him Dyl, then Dyl Pickle, then Pickles when we're playing. That's three words, sort of, or four if I stretch it.

He understands real well words associated with fun and food. In addition to the three cited previously, words I know he understands include, (in alphabetical order, and I'll explain some of them):

  • all gone (This refers to whatever food he's wanting at the time. When it's gone and I say this, he'll turn and leave the room.)
  • bath (He doesn't like this word at all anymore since a bath accompanied having his nails trimmed one day.)
  • buddy
  • come here
  • come on
  • dirt
  • don't jump/jump ("Don't jump" is used when he wants to say hello to new people. "Jump," we do a lot for various toys.)
  • drink
  • get fat man (This refers to a squeaky toy that was one of his first and it looks like a fat man of some sort. He can pick it out from a pile of toys when you ask him to "get fat man.")
  • get in your pool (He has a small swimming pool and will jump into it when I say this phrase.)
  • get the kitty (This is used to get him to play with his best friend Dawg the cat.)
  • get your ball (This refers to whatever round ball that's in view at the time, as opposed to his football, explained next.)
  • get your football (He can distinguish between his football and his round toy balls.)
  • get your bra on (That's what I inadvertently started calling his harness when he was wee little and that's the phrase he knows. He jumps up on the bed and gets still so I can put his harness on. Then he'll go stand by the door quietly waiting for me to connect the leash.)
  • go for a walk
  • go potty
  • go to bed
  • good job
  • I can't reach it (This phrase he understands to mean bring the ball/Frisbee/rope, whatever we're playing with closer within my reach.)
  • inside/in (Used to ask him if he's "ready to come in," or in the phrase, "Do you want to come inside?")
  • kiss
  • leash
  • leave it (This phrase is what I use when he has something in his mouth that doesn't belong there, whether it be one of my shoes or a piece of paper he picks up from the sidewalk.)
  • let's go
  • love the puppy
  • Mom
  • move it
  • no bite
  • no pull/pull
  • outside/out
  • sandwich (If I say something about making a "sandwich" he visibly perks up. You can tell he's going to work on begging for a bite.)
  • sing
  • sit
  • snuggle
  • stop it
  • stay
  • toy
  • treat
  • water
  • where's your football
  • work (He loves going to work, meaning he's going somewhere to play with another dog. The sound of this word gets him instantly excited.)
  • yeah!! (When I say, "Yeah! Dylan," he begins strutting, knowing he's done something praiseworthy.)
  • you wanna bite (Refers to food, not my arm.)
  • you want to play

That's 68 words by my count, and that's counting words that normally start a phrase only once in the total, words like "go" and "get" and omitting common words like "to, the, it" and etc. Not bad for a 10-month-old Pup, in my opinion. I'm sure I'll think of more later after this is posted and he's learning new things all the time.

He's a big-time explorer and I tell him what things are when we're out and about. How much he retains, only he knows and he "ain't telling."

Oh yes, I almost forgot, in addition to the words listed above, he does know the words to at least three songs and when I sing them he howls along, if that counts.

He also knows when he's being scolded by the tone of my voice when I say his name. His understanding is obvious by his body language - ears and tail go down and he sorta slouches. So, I know he processes the tone of my voice along with the actual words being spoken.

Tone Matters

The largest dog research group in the world, the Department of Ethology at Eotvos Lorand University, in Budapest, Hungary, conducted a study using dogs trained to lie in an fMRI scanner to see how a dog's brain processes human speech. The results, published in Science in August 2016, are quite interesting.

A woman lies on the floor talking with her puppyThe leading researcher, Attila Andics, is quoted in the publication as stating that the findings show dogs process speech much the same way as we do. Word meaning is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain and intonation is processed in the right hemisphere. The two are then put together to derive the full meaning.

The dogs clearly understood words that were important to each of them, regardless of whether the words were said with a praising tone, a neutral tone or a negative tone. Recognition was documented based on activity in the left hemisphere of each dog's brain.

Findings showed that the dogs used the right hemisphere of the brain to distinguish between intonations of praise and intonations of non-praise. Pretty smart -- when the same words were said with different intonations, the dogs clearly distinguished between the two. What the dogs interpreted as praise also activated the brain region associated with pleasure. Thus, this shows that the tone of voice we use with our dogs is just as important as the actual words, when we're trying to reinforce a positive or negative action.

Most humans that have a lot of experience with dogs have known this for quite some time. However, it's nice to see it authenticated with professional research, in my opinion.

What do you think? Let's start a discussion on Facebook if you'd like.

Animal Planet: How Many Words Do Dogs Know
Science: Your Dog Understands More than You Think

For Further Reading:
Ethology Institute Cambridge: Do Dogs Understand What We Say?