Stop me if you already know this one. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and you decide to take your dog for a bonus walk. You haven’t yet picked up the leash, haven’t yet unlocked the door, haven’t yet given your pooch any visual cues. Your pup – let’s call her Schnoozy – gazes up at you with a question in her eyes.
“Hey, Schnoozy,” you begin. “Do you want to go for–“
Before the magic word has even left your mouth, Schnoozy is jumping wildly! Wagging her tail! Barking peals of joy! How did she know? You’ve already been for a walk today, so she isn’t expecting another for at least a few hours. You hadn’t brandished a leash, ball, or frisbee. And – perhaps most crucially – SHE KNEW BEFORE YOU’D EVEN SAID “WALK”. You know that dogs can learn to understand some words – but is there more to it than that? Can Schnoozy understand your tone? Read your body language? Detect a change in the air, as if she wields a canine Spidey Sense?
If you’re a dog lover, chances are you already know that your pooch is smart. However, the extent to which dogs understand their humans is still being hotly researched. To save you a long trip ’round the internet, we’ve shared our findings with you below!
How much of their Owner’s language can a dog understand?
Canine experts have long agreed that dogs can learn to recognise some human words. However, recent research suggests that our furry friends understand more than we once thought. Chiefly, in 2010, a Border Collie named Chaser displayed the deepest recorded memory of any non-human animal in history.
Through a series of tests, Chaser proved that she can understand more than 1,000 words. As if this weren’t impressive enough, she also showed she could differentiate between nouns and verbs. For example, if she were told to “bring teddy”, she would pick up her teddy bear and bring it to her Owner. By contrast, if she were asked to “lick teddy”, she would give the stuffed toy a kiss and leave it in its place.
Finally, Chaser has been able to expand her vocabulary through inferential reasoning by exclusion. For those of us who don’t have a PhD in Psych, let’s explain this phrase with an example. Say there are 10 items in a room. Chaser knows the names of nine of them, and the 10th is a guitar. If you instruct her to “Go to the guitar”, she will infer that the word “guitar” belongs to the 10th item. Through the process of elimination, she will exclude the nine words she already knows to reach the correct answer. This is the same process by which human children learn to speak.
Okay, but what does this tell me about my dog?
Needless to say, Chaser is a unique case – the Stephen Hawking of pups, if you will. Having said that, her feats prove three crucial things:
- Dogs have the potential to understand the meaning behind words
- They are able to recognise three-to-five word sentences
- They can learn new words through inference
Your furbaby may not match Chaser’s record (or hey, they might best it!). However, if you use positive reinforcements like treats, you can teach your pooch the name of certain objects. Match that with a command, and you could train your pup to “Fetch my shoes” in no time!
Does my dog read visual cues when they’re trying to understand me?
Now we return to dear Schnoozy. She knew you were taking her for a walk before she’d even heard the word. Seriously, what’s up with that?!
For starters, dogs love looking into your eyes to learn more about you. In fact, they’re the only non-primate creatures that are programmed to make eye contact with humans. This gives them access to a wealth of information on which they can draw. For instance, did Schnoozy see you glancing at the the door or her leash? Did she see your pupils dilate in the same way they had before past walks? By watching your eyes (and the rest of your body language), your dog can learn what you’re saying long before you say it.
They are also conditioned to focus on the right side of the human face. This half of your face is more closely linked to the emotional lobe of your brain. In other words, they’re trying to read your feelings from your face. Some dog experts even suggest this is why dogs tilt their heads when they look at you.
Does my tone play a role?
Your dog is a master at deciphering the tone of your voice. Research conducted in 2016 at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest proved this in a big way. The research revealed that dogs are at their most joyful when they hear praiseful words they recognise spoken in a praiseful tone. For example, if you say “Good boy!” in a warm tone, they’ll be over the moon. However, if you used the same tone to say “insurance”, “economy”, or any other word they’d never heard, they’ll still be pretty happy.
Long story short: dogs put a lot of stock in the tone of your voice. In the case of Schnoozy, she may have simply identified that you’d engaged your “Dog Walking Voice”. She never needed to hear the word “walk”. Your tone had already said it.
There are a million reasons to love dogs. They’re loyal, affectionate, companionable, and boy, do they keep you fit. Above all, though, they’re smart. Like, crazy smart. When you speak to them, they’re reading your tone, your eyes, your posture, and even some of your vocabulary. The next time Schnoozy guesses she’s being taken for a walk, don’t ask: “How did she know?” Ask, “Is this my idea…or did Schnoozy plant it in my head?”