‘Do you want to go out for a walk?’ ‘Sit, sit, sit, I know you know how to do this, SIT, good boy, good doggy’. ‘Did you take my shoe? Rover, fess up! I know you did it!’ ‘Stop jumping on me, not now, yes I love you too, but you’re putting hair all over me…’ We just can’t help but talk to our dogs about anything and everything. Many are convinced that their dog understands most of what they tell them while others stay on the cautious and more realistic side attributing most of the dogs’ reactions to our body language and tone of voice. Science today provides us insight into what may really be going on. How much of our human babble do dogs really understand? Can we really communicate with our dogs through the use of words?
In humans, verbal language plays an important role in the development of our cognitive development. Words help infants divide the world into categories and similarities that would otherwise take much longer to understand (Waxman, 2013). Our dog’s mental abilities compare to that of a human child between 2 – 2.5 years old (Stanley Coren ,2009). But unlike in humans, dogs are not equal when it comes to cognitive abilities and there are big differences between breeds when it comes to the dogs’ capacity to process information. The most intelligent of all: the border collie of course. But when it comes to human language, the average dog can still learn a whooping 165 words! Rico, a Border collie, was the first to bust through that number and developed the ability to recognize and fetch up to 200 different toys. Soon after, Chaser beat all odds by learning well over 1000 words! Chaser and Rico were not only capable of pairing a word with a particular object, they were also able to pick out a brand new toy, within a pile of known toys, when given a word that they had never heard before. They would immediately associate the new word with the new toy in a process called ‘fast mapping’. Until then, this ability was thought to be unique to humans.
The similarities between how humans and dogs can learn and understand human words may stop there. Human babies will primarily associate a word with the shape of an object (Laudau & al., 1988). But recent studies have shown that for dogs, what’s important may be very different. Unlike toddlers, our dogs seem to focus primarily on the objects size and texture so there is a qualitative difference in the way they will understand words (van der Zee & al., 2012). This is an important distinction. Why? Because it points out the more general idea that we cannot assume that others experience the world in the same way that we do, even when they respond in similar ways. Between humans already, there can be big differences in how we’ll interpret what is said or what we remember from an event. When we interact with our dog, it’s important to remind ourselves that, although they react in ways that seem to indicate they’re having a similar experience to us, they may actually be focused on a very different category of information. In other words, when we think the dog lies down when we say the word ‘down’, he may lie down because we were in a context where lying down had been previously rewarded. Saying the word ‘down’ in a very different situation may not get the same result at all. He may also be responding to our body movement as we bend over slightly and completely disregard the fact that the sound ‘down’ came out of our mouth.
Dogs have shown their ability to associate a particular sound with an object or a movement and with training most dogs can acquire quite an impressive vocabulary. But associating a sound to an object is different than understanding the meaning of the sound. A dog can learn to sit to the word ‘apple’ just as quickly and without any confusion as he would to the word ‘sit’. Since the words have no actual meaning to the dog, it’s also critical to withhold using the word associated with the behavior, the cue, before the dog offers the behavior in its final form. If we were to learn a foreign language and our teacher would say the word ‘sit’ in a Russian or French or a sentence as we’re standing, even if we’re standing in front of a chair, we’re likely to associate that particular sound to the action: ‘stand’. The only way we could associate the sound with the appropriate action ‘sit’, is if we hear the sound as we are sitting down or look at pictures of others sitting on a chair. For the dog, if we say sit while it’s looking at us, or jumping on us, it will be hard for him to understand that sit means anything other than ‘look at me’ or ‘jump up on me’.
For the same reason, just because the dog has learned that ‘sit’ means ‘put your butt on the ground’, in the kitchen, doesn’t mean that he’ll also know to do the same when at the park or when it’s said by a different person, a different tone of voice when you’re sitting down, etc… When we focus on the word alone, the dog also takes many other sources of information into consideration and they become necessary elements for his understanding. So for the dog to focus just on the word and respond to it in every situation, we need to help him make that association in enough different situations that it becomes the only relevant source of information.
Words are such an important part of our communication system that we sometimes forget that other creatures have a different experience with language. Since dogs are so good at reading our emotions and responding to our body language, it’s very easy to overestimate how much they can actually understand. But what if one day we could bridge even that communication gap and use technology to communicate at a level that most of us have never yet dreamed of? What if we could actually talk to our dogs and hear what they have to say in human verbal language? We might be surprised as to what they would tell us!
More on this subject in the next blog…
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
- Dog Gets Grammar? Chaser The Border Collie Knows Nouns, Verbs & Prepositions, Study Shows (VIDEO) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Dogs Weigh In (blogs.scientificamerican.com)