Listen to people talk to their dogs.
Some people stick to instructing: “Come! Heel! Sit! Good dog.”
Others talk to their dogs like best friends: “I can’t believe the boss expects me to do that. What does he think I am—a machine?”
Most other people fall somewhere in between. But how many words can our dogs really understand? Tests have shown that most trained dogs can understand at least 150 words.
Names and Commands
Dogs learn their names. And, although dogs don’t address each other by name, they can learn to associate a name with another dog. They can also learn to associate a name to a human in their family.
You can teach your dog commands. One word commands work best: “Come” or “Here” works better than “Come here;” “Sit” works better than “Sit down.”
Consistency and Repetition
Consistency is also important. If you say “leave it” when you want him to let go of a toy and your son says “drop it,” your dog will take longer to associate either word than if you both said the same thing.
Dogs also understand short words more readily than long ones. Going for a morning “walk” will be more quickly understood than taking your morning “constitutional.”
Your dog can learn not only command words, but also the names of objects. You can teach him to differentiate between his ball, his frisbee, and his stuffed toy. If he has several stuffed toys, he can learn what you mean when you tell him to get his squirrel, his fox, his cat, or his mouse.
Smarter Than We Might Think
But a dog’s intelligence goes beyond just learning to associate a toy with a name. Researchers have discovered that if you put out 10 toys, 9 of which are familiar to your dog and one that isn’t, and tell him to get the toy with a name that he doesn’t recognize, many dogs will pick up the unfamiliar toy. Some dogs can even match that toy to the previously unfamiliar name when in a group of unknown toys as long as a month later.
There is also some evidence that your dog can count up to about five. This was tested by dropping treats audibly, one at a time, behind a screen. A researcher would then either add or remove one of the treats. When the screen was removed, the dog would pause and act confused. Since this confusion only occurred when the number of treats was different than the number dropped, some believed the dog was trying to figure out why the number of items he sees doesn’t agree with the number he heard drop.
Dogs aren’t limited to communicating by speech, either. Dogs that live with hearing-impaired people are able to understand hand signals and other non-verbal commands by their owners. It’s also possible for people to communicate with their deaf dogs using hand signs.
Lacking in Understanding
Although your dog can learn words that are associated with objects or actions, it’s unlikely that he truly understands speech. When you tell him you love him, he appreciates the soft, warm tone of your voice, but he doesn’t comprehend the meaning the same way he does when you say “treat,” since he knows that means he’ll get a snack.
It’s also unlikely your dog understands syntax. He probably doesn’t know the difference between “the cat bit the dog” and “the dog bit the cat.” He doesn’t attach any significance to the order in which the words appear.
Training to Increase Vocabulary
You can increase your dog’s vocabulary by training him to perform more tasks, teaching him the names of more objects, or both. Some breeds are better at learning words than others. And, of course, one individual dog may just be smarter than another dog.
Dogs instinctively want to please their humans. If you keep talking to your dog, always treat him with respect, and reward him when he responds correctly, you might be surprised how many words your dog can learn.