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Dogs Understand Many More Words than We Think

Denyse O'Leary
Photo credit: Samia Liamani on Unsplash.

Sophie Jacques, Associate Professor, Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, came up with some interesting figures on dogs recognizing words. Starting in 2015, she and a colleague

developed a list of 172 words organized in different categories (for example, toys, food, commands, outdoor places) and gave it to an online sample of 165 owners of family and professional dogs. We asked them to select words that their dogs responded to consistently. We found that, on average, service dogs respond to about 120 words, whereas family pets respond to about 80 words, ranging between 15 to 215 words across all dogs. We also found that certain breed groups, such as herding dogs like border collies and toy dogs like chihuahuas, respond to more words and phrases than other breed types like terriers, retrievers and mixed breeds.

SOPHIE JACQUES, “YES, YOUR DOG CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING — TO A POINT” AT THE EPOCH TIMES (JANUARY 22, 2022)

There is a practical value to Jacques’s work with dogs and language:

… it is very expensive to train puppies for service work and many do not make the final cut. However, if early word-based responding abilities predict later behavioural and cognitive abilities, our measure could become an early and simple tool to help predict which dogs are likely to become good service animals.

SOPHIE JACQUES, “YES, YOUR DOG CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING — TO A POINT” AT THE EPOCH TIMES (JANUARY 22, 2022)

Of course, the dog is responding to words as signals, not as components of sentences. What dogs are really good at is picking up on and responding to human emotions:

Just as human toddlers look to their parents for cues about how to react to the people and world around them, dogs often look to humans for similar signs. When their people project feelings of calm and confidence, dogs tend to view their surroundings as safe and secure.

“The emotional connection between humans and dogs is the essence of the relationship,” says Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. “Dogs are amazingly social beings, so they are easily infected with our warmth and joy.” But the converse is true as well, which means their owner’s stress and anxiety can also become the dog’s stress and anxiety. 

STACEY COLINO, “YES, DOGS CAN ‘CATCH’ THEIR OWNERS’ EMOTIONS” AT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (OCTOBER 1, 2021)

Of course, that makes sense. The dog is living in a human environment and much of the time, he doesn’t know for sure what to think, so he looks to his human friends for clues.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.