Can dogs understand what we say?

posted: 05/15/12
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Can dogs understand what we say?
Simon Plant/Corbis

Have you heard about Rico, the wonder collie? He gained international notoriety for being able to accurately respond to 200 words, putting him in league with most human toddlers. And while most dogs aren't quite as capable as Rico, a lot of people swear by their pet's comprehension skills. After all, many of these dog-based dialogues involve meaningful responses in the form of a woof, whimper or tail-wag, depending on what's being said. In fact, many pet owners marvel at the complexity of their doggie discussions, leaving them to wonder whether canines really can understand what they say.

It turns out that people who talk to their dogs may be on to something. Studies show that the average dog can understand about 165 different words, in some cases more if you make a point of training them. This includes the basic commands such as "sit," "stay," and "go," as well as a range of other terms, assuming they're tangible words and not abstract ideas.

For example, most dogs can learn that "leash" is a ropey thing that they wear on walks through the neighborhood, though they likely have no clue that its purpose is to keep them from running free. On the other hand, a dog's ability to learn the word "leash" is probably strengthened by its association with going for a walk. Dogs can learn all sorts of words, but those that are associated with concrete actions or objects are easiest to learn, especially if they have anything to do with eating, playing, or going to the park.

Posture, context, and daily routines, as well as words, play an important role in a canine communication, according to Jessica Beymer, DVM, of the Contra Costa Veterinary Emergency Center in Concord, Calif. "Dogs that live with deaf people can even be taught to respond to hand signals as a form of language," she explains.

Volume and cadence also matter. You can say "You're a devil dog," but as long as you do so in a sing-song voice with a smile on your face, chances are your pet will read it as praise.

Dogs definitely have a special way of communicating with each other that is distinct from their communications with us, and much of that communication is non-verbal. According to Dr. Beymer, pheromone clues, body language, behavior and situation are more important than vocalizations in the communications between dogs. For example, a dog may respond positively to play fighting at the dog park, but negatively to the same behavior if it happens at mealtime.

But the most powerful method of communication between dogs comes not from the vocal chords but from, well, the butt. All dogs secrete a pungent musk from their anal sacs that is thought to contain important information about the animal. At least that's what scientists assume based on dogs' fixation with each others' hind quarters. If you're curious about the issue, you could try asking your dog about it.

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