Like most dogs lovers, I talk to my dogs constantly as if they understand English – like full-on conversations. It’s more therapeutic than anything else. Before you get too concerned, no, I don’t hear them speak back to me. As my dog sits there and listens to me spout off, do they actually understand English, or any language for that matter, or does it just sound like the grown ups from Peanuts (“whomp, whomp, whomp,”)?
Well, as it turns out, dogs do not understand English or any other language in the sense of full language comprehension. Dogs can connect words or sounds to objects or action commands. That’s the reason dog commands are typically 1-2 words.
While dogs don’t understand English or other languages, they can build associative connections to words. Meaning they understand that certain words are connected to certain action and those actions have positive or negative consequences.
There is more, though, to how a dog understands us. To them, words are only a portion of communication. Keep reading to learn more about how dogs understand and process words.
Do dogs understand the words we are saying?
There are just some basic differences between how humans comprehend language and speech versus how dogs perceive speech. Let’s take a quick look at those differences.
Language comprehension in humans
As I mentioned above, dogs don’t seem to understand language the same way that humans do. Humans use language to convey thoughts, feelings, and understanding. When you’re listening to a story from someone, you’re forming a scene in your head. You’re comprehending the meanings or imagery behind what the other person is saying.
I mean heck, that fact that you are even reading this article for information is evidence of our deeper language comprehension as humans.
Dogs simply do not have this language comprehension ability. They can’t understand English or other languages like we do.
Associating sounds with objects and actions
Dogs may not have full comprehension of language, but they definitely have the ability to associate words with objects or actions. You can see this fact in how you train a dog.
When you get a new puppy, you typically start with teaching them their name and maybe a basic command like “sit”. For a while you keep speaking your dog’s name and they just don’t seem to get it.
Eventually, after constant repetition and reward, it seems like a switch clicks and now your pup knows their name.
This is similar in commands for action such as “sit” or “stay”.
For instance, the first time you tell your puppy to sit, they just stare at you, maybe tilt there head trying to understand what in the heck this big creature is saying. You progress through the exercise of saying “sit”, positioning them into a proper sit, then rewarding your puppy with a treat and praise. After constant repetition, your puppy will eventually learn that when they hear the sound “sit”, they will get a treat if they get into that position.
Sounds and Body Language
I can imagine many of you are shaking your heads a bit at this point in the article (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you). I can hear her now, “I don’t think that’s true. Jimi (her mini-labradoodle) definitely understands me. I ask him to do things and he does it.”
Yes, Mom (and others) your dog will show some understanding. This is especially true in dogs that are typically higher intelligence breeds. You may say a sentence like “No, we don’t chew on the couch” and your dog will likely show remorse.
However, it’s not so much understanding a sentence as it is pairing word association with tone and non-verbal queues.
In the above example, when you say, “No, we don’t chew on the couch”, your dog probably only understood the word “no”, paired it with your obviously frustrated tone, and possibly your finger pointing. Your dog uses all of this to go, “Oh, I messed up”.
It’s this piecing together of sounds, tone, and body language that allows the dog to display basic understanding of what we’re asking of them or telling them. At the end of the day, dogs as social animals, thrive on the social reinforcement of praise.
How many words can a dog understand?
So we already covered that dogs learn to associate words with objects or actions, but is there a limit? Is there a ceiling to how many words a dog can fit in it’s vocabulary?
There doesn’t seem to be any hard fast data to show there is a firm limit. However, there are some pretty amazing examples of dogs knowing a ton of words.
For Instance there is a Boarder Collie, named Chaser, in South Carolina that set the record with knowing 1,022 nouns. What???
Yep, she knows over 1,000 words. Her owner, Dr. John W. Pilley, a psychologist, taught her so many words, that he said he found it hard to remember every word she knew and he became bored with the exercise. So, he moved on to teaching her grammar.
Additionally, Chaser was able to display an understanding of two term commands. Chaser successfully understood action-object commands such as “fetch ball” or “point stick”. (the link to that article is HERE.)
Can Dogs Understand Multiple Languages?
So the question becomes, can dogs be bilingual or multilingual?
Dogs can be bilingual or multilingual, just not in the same sense as humans. Dogs can learn to associate multiple sounds for the same behavior. Just remember, your dog won’t understand that you’re speaking a different language, they just know you’re requesting a certain behavior.
Why are police or military dogs trained in German or Slavic Languages?
I recently read something that was asserting that dogs somehow understood German better because it was easier for them to understand. I found this to be laughable and not even close to why dogs are trained in German.
The reason dogs are trained in German, or other Slavic languages, is because of two main reasons:
First of all, many of the K9 dogs for police or military are imported from Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, or Poland. These dogs receive their basic command training in their home countries. When the dogs arrive here many of their handlers choose to build onto their K9 partners native language.
Secondly, this allows for an element of surprise, since most people won’t know commands in these languages. This keeps a suspect from knowing in the moment what command was given to the K9 unit. Additionally, this reducing any risk of someone else giving a command and possibly creating a slight confusion for the canine officer.
Can I train my dog in German or other Languages?
The simple answer is yes. You can train your dog in any language as long as you adhere to the same repetitive training that you would use when training your dog in English.
If you are feeling adventurous, below is a table of some foreign language basic commands that are used in professional K9 training. The English command and their equivalents are listed. The phonetic pronunciation is in parenthesis:
|Go Outside||Geh Draussen||Dehors||Jdi ven||Naar Buiten|
|So ist brav||Bon Garcon|
|Leave it||Lass es||Laisse/|
To wrap things up, we learned that dogs do not understand English, or other languages the way you and I do. It may appear that dogs are understanding a sentence or statement, but in reality they are probably only understanding one or two words that they picked up in training.
Additionally, dogs will use our tone and body language to make a complete picture of what they think we are wanting.
The good news is that dogs aren’t bound by needing to understand a complete language, so you can train your dog in another language, or multiple languages.
So feel free to see how far your can stretch your Lassie’s lexicon!