Girl whispering into dog's ear

Does Your Dog Understand Full Conversations? Science Weighs In

Most of us tend to talk to our dogs a lot. And, I don’t mean just command words, but we often have full conversations with them. After all, they are our pals and often, our best buddies. So, we naturally talk to them, take them into our confidence, and tell them about our day and places we will go together.

Yet, we generally assume that it is a one-way conversation. Dogs do understand many words and the basic commands we have taught them. But do dogs really understand sentences as well as words and even full conversations?

Some interesting scientific studies have demonstrated that dogs may in fact understand conversations more than we think. Our canine buddies may be more linguistically intelligent than we have given them credit!

What Science Tells Us About Canine Linguistic Skills

We all know that dogs can learn one or two words as basic commands such as “sit”, lay down”, “come”, “stay”, and so on. But can dogs put these words together and also understand phrases and even full sentences and conversations?

Dogs understand what we are telling them in three primary ways:

  • Sound of the word
  • Intonation
  • Body language

The tone of our voice and our body language assist a dog in understanding the full meaning of the words we are trying to teach them. Dogs mostly understand the meaning of words by the way they sound, and can sometimes react in the same way to a sound that is similar such as “sit” and “sip”.

MRI Studies

Studies that were done in Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest with dogs using MRI technology revealed that dogs learn the meaning of the word with both their left and right brains much like humans. According to an article by VCA.com, the study demonstrated that dogs learn the meaning of a word on the left side of their brains and also through our intonation which is processed on the right side of the brain. However, in some of the MRI studies, dogs learned the meaning of words with only the left side of their brain. A dog’s ability to learn words is much like an 18-month-old human toddler’s skills.

The results of the MRI studies indicated that dogs learn to interpret language through both the left and right sides of their brains. Therefore, the sound of the words and the intonation were important keys to their understanding of what their owner was trying to tell them. You can see more about this study in an article by the Washington Post.

In some cases, however, dogs were able to understand the meaning of words without intonation such as praise or sternness. This was mostly true for certain breeds such as Border Collies. More research is being done to learn more about this genetic connection to canine linguistic skills.

In general, dogs learn words by sound and association, which involves both the analytical and the emotional parts of their brains much like humans. They learn best when the meaning of a word is paired with an intonation so that both sides of their brains are engaged.

Can Dogs Understand Full Sentences?

As far as scientists can tell, dogs do not actually understand human language. They understand the sound of words and the way we say them. They also can interpret our body language much the same way we interpret theirs. But they cannot really follow a whole conversation. Dogs may be able to comprehend a string of words and get an inkling of the meaning.

As an example, I sometimes tell my dogs that their Auntie Jayne is coming soon, and then we are going for a walk. They will run to the front door and look for her. Then they will also run over to the closet where I keep their leashes. So, it does seem that they can put things together, even though they cannot really understand complete sentences.

Many people feel that dogs have a deeper understanding of what their owners may be feeling and thinking. Dogs have been attributed with the ability to feel empathy due to their intuitive abilities. Some people have even referred to a dog’s empathic abilities as spiritual in nature. While this is something that people say they have sensed and observed, science has not done studies that have proved these theories. See my post about How to Bond With Your Rescue Dog for more about the human-canine connection.

How Many Words Can Dogs Understand?

Dogs can respond to up to 200 words, but the average is around 89 words for most dogs. This is about the same ability as a two-year-old human toddler. Border Collies have a much higher ability to learn. And, in one case a Border Collie learned 1000 words, many of which were names of objects rather than commands. This is significant as learning the names of objects is a more analytical left brain function, which does not involve the more emotional components of the right side of the brain.

What Languages Do Dogs Understand Best?

German is a language that dogs understand well. It is succinct and crisp which makes it easier for dogs to hear the sound of various words and phrases. However, dogs can learn words in just about any language. And they do understand the difference in languages. During the MRI studies dogs appeared to know the native language of their owners.

What is the Average Dog’s IQ?

Based on tests that included language skills, a dog’s average IQ is 100–the same as a human two-year-old. When tested for arithmetic skills, dogs showed a higher IQ that was more closely matched to that of a 3-4-year-old.

Stanley Cohen, P.hd. , a professor at the University of Columbia and author of “The Intelligence of Dogs” states that there are three primary types of canine intelligence:

  • intelligence
  • instinctive intelligence
  • working and obedience intelligence

This includes natural adaptive intelligence, a dog’s genetic ability to comprehend, and a dog’s ability to learn from humans and other dogs. See more about this at technobark.com.

In Summary

Dogs cannot understand the full conversations or sentences of humans. They simply do not have the linguistic skills. However, they can understand up to 200 words, phrases, and commands. Additionally, dogs seem to have the ability to be empathetic. They learn a lot about what we are saying through our tone of voice and body language. It really is pretty amazing how much our furry buddies can understand human conversations through means other than keen linguistic skills.

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