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Do Dogs Understand What We Say?

There are probably many expressions that dog owners have said to their dogs. Some expressions that owners say include things such as “this is not your food” or “that is bad” or probably quite common from dog owners. It had led up to the question of what do our words mean to dogs. Can they understand words? I mean not that everyone plans their day to have a conversation with a dog. But dog owners are sometimes left thinking what do the sayings they sometimes say to their animal mean to the animal. Just what do we sound like to them? Like do we sound like angels or do we sound like someone having a coughing fit?

Dogs can learn the names of many, many, many different objects as found by Julia Fischer who is a group leader at the German Primate Center’s Cognitive Ethology Lab. She had heard that a Border Collie named Rico knew the names of 70 individual objects and therefore she wanted to know how Rico knew about specific human words to particular objects. She contacted the owners and the owners let her and the team into their home and do a study of Rico. This ended with an article in 2004 with an article in Science and it reporting that Rico knew the names of over 200 different objects. Sometimes it is up to the owners themselves. You can have the dog know the basic things such as sit and stay. Owners that have the patience and motivation could end up teaching their dogs hundreds of words. Stanley Coren, who is a psychologist that has performed research on dog intelligence, found that the average trained dog can learn about 160 words. Some dogs have shown to have a vocabulary as great as a human toddler.

So do dogs understand the words their owners say to them or are they just cuing in to the tone of voice? Well it looks like it could be both. It seems that the dog not only hears the meaning of human speech but they can also understand the emotion behind it according to research done. While these findings do not definitely answer if things can fully understand words or human speech, they do show that dogs pay attention to speech. Another thing is that dogs will do things such as sit, shake, heel, and snuggle in response to commands or even terms of endearment. Other studies have shown that dogs are attuned to things such as gaze, posture, and other forms of nonverbal communication as well as voice tone. So in the end it is tricky to figure out. Are they just picking up on cues or are they understanding? Other research has even shown that people may sometimes project wrong human understanding onto their dogs. So in the end it all leaves the question of can dogs understand when we talk to them.

In fact dogs have shown they are not likely to understand abstract things. Therefore they would not be able to comprehend words that refer to them. Like when we tell a dog we love them, regardless of understanding of the word, a better response might be seen from the word “treat.” Therefore a dog’s word understanding can be speculated to be limited to only concrete examples so to speak. This has to be the conclusion for now until new research is done in regards to dogs and abstract concepts. So is language understood then by dogs? Well when we think of language we have to go back to its meaning. If we go by language means simply communicating a word to get a reaction then yeah dogs might just fit the bill. However many researchers think the definition of language must go deeper. As a result of this it is argued that dogs cannot really understand words and speech as humans do.

So in order to figure out what really goes on in a dog’s head Victoria Ratcliffe brought in 250 dogs of all breeds into their lab. The dogs were then placed into a room where speakers were placed on either side of their heads. Now when it comes to sound Ratcliffe says that the sound a dog hears in its right ear is processed mainly in the brains left hemisphere and vice versa. So this means that when a dog turns its head to the right upon hearing sound it can be concluded that the left hemisphere of the brain plays quite the role in sound and processing. In this particular trail the researchers played a clip of owners saying the words, “Come on, then!” However the emotion behind the words was electronically taken out along with sound changed so to voice could not be identified. There were times when the dogs have heard their owners say the exact same expression but then garbled so the words would not be understood. This suggests that intonation and emotional content of speech is important to a dog. It was found that dogs turned their head to the right when they heard words without emotion. They would turn their heads to the left when they heard words with emotion in them.

Just like dogs humans also process language in the brains left hemisphere and the emotional content in the right. This suggests that humans and dogs have similarities when it comes to processing language. It is still not exactly clear just how and what a dog can understand. So Ratcliffe and her team did some follow up work. The team gave the dogs other commands with other bits of information removed and see what the dogs would do. For example if a dog was told to stay would it sit still for an indefinite period? That is tricky because while dogs may understand the command, following it could be another story. Therefore it leaves room for plenty of interpretation.

Regardless of anything in the end there is definite ability of some understanding comprehension in dogs when it comes to us. What can be revealed of it we have to wait and see.

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