The act of talking to a dog might strike some as absurd. Sure, dogs are deft at responding to commands: “Sit,” “Down,” and “Come.” But can your dog really understand you and follow the train of human language? Can they literally grasp phrases, or dozens of unique words? Dog owners have long insisted this was the case. When they mention “going to the park” or “taking a walk,” the utterances can, indeed, result in enthusiastic tail wagging and a dash to the door.
Pet owners sometimes believe so strongly in canine comprehension that they talk to their dogs like furry friends. During this kind of communication, it’s not unusual for a dog to stare at their human, look them in the eye, and seemingly listen, intently, to their owner’s words and woes. The fur kid may even seem to understand what their person is conveying with their words.
While many chalk up this kind of impression to illusion, new research reveals there’s something to it. Are dogs really grasping human language? It turns out the answer is, to some degree, yes. In The Genius of Dogs (written with research scientist Vanessa Woods), Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare, PhD, offers a host of evidence demonstrating that dogs are more attuned to human communication than many people assume. It’s part of what Hare has dubbed “dognition.”
“No other species besides humans has demonstrated the ability to learn the meaning of words so quickly and with so much flexibility,” says Hare. “Dogs definitely understand more than we give them credit for.”
An Impressive Vocabulary
Hare points to an astonishingly well documented example — a dog named Chaser who learned the names of over 800 stuffed toys, 116 balls, 26 frisbees, and 100 plastic objects. “There were no duplicates, and all the objects differed in size, weight, texture, design, and material. To be exact, Chaser learned the names of 1,022 objects,” Hare explains. “She was tested every day, and just to be sure she was not ‘cheating’ by getting hints from anyone, every month she had to do a blind test where she had to fetch objects in a different room, out of sight of her owner.” Hare noted, “Even after Chaser learned over 1,000 words, there was no decrease in the rate at which she learned new words.”
“Even more impressive, the objects Chaser had learned were organized in a variety of categories in her mind. Even though the objects came in all different shapes and sizes, without any training, Chaser could distinguish between objects that were her toys and objects that were non-toys.”
Although Chaser’s example is remarkable because of the sheer number of words in her “vocabulary,” researchers have documented other examples of not only how facile many dogs are at understanding words, but how they often remember or figure out what human words mean, even in more than one language.
Author John Steinbeck, writing about his poodle Charley, claimed the dog was bilingual. “He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little Poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down.” This might sound like a dog-loving storyteller’s exaggeration — but it is likely true. “There is no evidence yet that dogs understand sentences,” Hare says. “But names of objects in a foreign language? No problem!”
How To Use “Dog Speak” When Talking to Canines
In England, University of York psychologists Alex Benjamin, PhD, and Katie Slocombe, PhD, have a professional and personal interest in human to dog communication, called dog-directed speech (DDS). Benjamin’s research has focused on how dogs communicate with both humans and other canines. Slocombe previously studied communication in primates.
And both have pet dogs. Slocombe’s fur kid is Suzy, an Irish setter. Benjamin’s dog is Cooper, a spaniel. They decided to team up on a study to see if how people talk to dogs impacts how canines respond. “I relished the opportunity to work with dogs — they are so much easier to work with than chimpanzees — and due to dogs’ domestication history, they have some really interesting communication skills we wanted to investigate,” Slocombe explains.
The researchers conducted a series of speech tests with 37 adult dogs. The animals were given the chance to listen to a person (not their owner) using dog-directed speech — words and phrases the canines were likely familiar with. These included, “You’re a good dog” and “Shall we go for a walk?” The dogs also listened to a person using adult-directed speech (ADS), saying things without any specific dog-directed content, like “I saw a movie last night.”
The results, published in the journal Animal Cognition, showed the dogs were more likely to want to interact and hang out with someone who spoke to them using dog-related content instead of a person talking about things that weren’t apparently of interest to the dogs — but only if the person spoke in an animated, enthusiastic voice.
What You Say Should Interest Your Dog
Bottom line: What piqued the canines’ interest in what people said to them was both the words they used and the way the humans talked to the dogs — what Benjamin and Slocombe call “dog speak.”
“We found that it’s not only the way you talk (higher pitch, larger changes in pitch, similar to infant-directed speech) but also the content of what you are saying that were important to drive these effects,” Slocombe explains. “Dog-relevant content said in a dog-directed voice were most effective at capturing dogs’ attention.”
Slocombe and Benjamin hope the results of their research will be useful for pet owners interacting with their dogs, and also for veterinary professionals and rescue workers trying to create calm and gain the attention of dogs by using “dog speak.”
“Our experiments gave the chance for dogs to listen to and then approach unfamiliar experimenters, and we found that dog-directed speech resulted in greater attention and more affiliative approaches to those individuals. So when interacting with unfamiliar dogs, using dog-directed speech seems like an effective way to communicate with them and may facilitate an affiliative interaction” between you and the dog, Slocombe says.
The duo’s compelling research also suggests the tone of voice a person uses — speaking in a more enthusiastic voice to dogs — may promote greater relationship-building between a dog and its owner, much like how “baby talk” is a common part of human infant-and-adult bonding. “We don’t know if owners who routinely use dog-directed speech with their own dogs have a closer or more affectionate bond with their dogs,” Slocombe says. “But it’s an interesting idea for future research.”
How Dogs Read Body Language
Working dogs may be the most skilled at reading human gestures, but all dogs are attuned to human body language because they’ve evolved to read our communicative signals, according to Duke University evolutionary anthropologist and dog-cognition researcher Brian Hare, PhD.
“We often take it for granted that a quick point of our fingers, or even feet, can send dogs scampering in the direction of a lost ball or a hidden morsel of food, but this ability is extremely specialized. Even one of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, cannot read our gestures as well as dogs can,” Hare says. “In the same way that preverbal infants start paying attention to adults when they point, dogs understand that when we gesture, we are trying to cooperate and communicate with them.”
Dogs don’t usually waste their time watching every move of their human, either. Instead, dogs are most skilled at interpreting your body language if you pay specific attention to them. For example, your pooch is more likely to follow your pointing gesture if you make eye contact before gesturing and if you alternate your gaze between the dog and the direction you’re pointing, Hare explains. Dogs are also more likely to follow your gestures if you use a higher pitched, enthusiastic voice to attract their attention before gesturing — even if you don’t call their name.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2021.
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