What Words Can Your Dog REALLY Understand, and How to Teach Them More

It’s so cute and endearing to see your dog tilt their heads, eyes light up, and excitement build when you say certain words to them. As a puppy matures and becomes a full fledged family member, you see them retaining and reacting to more and more single word commands, or phrases. Some advanced dogs seem to intuitively know what’s coming next, and appear to even act before you complete the phrase or word. It makes one wonder what is the limit to their learning capabilities? One day, could a dog actually use this knowledge and be capable of speaking English… or carrying on a full fledged conversation with their human counterparts?

Firstly, let’s not get the cart before the horse, so to speak. There are a lot of misconceptions on what is really happening in this human to canine interaction, some exaggeration of the doggo’s abilities to absorb knowledge, and exactly what is going on in that big brain on Bobo. We would all love our best friend to suddenly break out and start reciting the Gettysburg Address, or be the co-pilot giving directions from a map on your trip to a new dog park, but the likelihood of that actually happening are not very good now or ever. It’s not to say that dogs are not smart. It’s just that there are huge roadblocks in the way information is absorbed and used in that dog brain that would prohibit a “Spot on” conversation.

The Truth about Dogs and Words

An American Kennel Club study indicates that dogs ARE, as a species, linguistically gifted in many ways. However, the normal K-9 is limited in what they really hear. They are not phonically dissecting your sounds and understanding the meaning behind the individual words… it only seems that way because humans use and repeat key words and phrases. Things like their name, “NO”, “good boy”, “dinner time”, “do you want to go out” will eventually bond to a dogs memory and create a Pavlovian response when heard. Much like the experiments where ringing a bell over and over will turn into a subliminal trigger to act a certain way if the behavior is rewarded each time, saying the same words repeatedly will cause the same mind trick for your furry buddy (regardless if it’s planned or unplanned).

The dogs are NOT learning the words, per say, they are learning the beginning sounds of words. They know that saying “SIT” will likely produce a treat if they only will plop down on their butts each time they hear it. However, if you say “SIP” or “SID”, the chances of you getting the exact same reaction are very high. It’s not the meaning of word, at all, it’s the beginning sounds and the way they bounce from the ear to the dogs brain. Try that out, if your dogs name is “ROVER”, try saying “ROGER” and see if you don’t get his attention and reaction in exactly the same way.  If you say “Denver” instead of “Dinner” chances are their excitement level will be exactly the same because the hard “D” sound will start the reaction and the rest of a word that has the same length, said with the same emphasis and tone, will be meaningless. AND… there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually how human children learn up until the age of about 14 months. Then the more developed human brain starts to form a logic and understanding that sounds and word meaning are not the same.

It’s quite amazing that dogs have this ability, so don’t undersell the accomplishment. The average dog can understand somewhere between 165 to 250 words, and that is pretty impressive for someone that doesn’t “speak the language.” A two year old human child understands around the same amount of words, so that means dogs are pretty good at retention overall.  Dogs also do not have a language barrier. The most famous linguist dog was “Chaser”, who had the largest vocabulary reactions of any canine on record. This genius interpreter could recognize over 1,000 words. Heck, it’s a safe bet you’ve met and interacted with humans that struggle to get to 1,000 words… or at least it seems that way.

There are dogs who understand words in up to five different languages. Again, it’s not the MEANING of the word, it’s the sound coupled with a reaction to a sound. If you think about it “SITZEN”, “Sentarse” and “сидеть” all mean “SIT” in different languages… if a dog hears any one of these repeatedly, they are going to pick up that the word is equal to a needed response is equal to a positive reaction from the human. Most dogs are in it to win it, and pleasing their people is a BIG win.

DogsandClogs.com claims to have a definitive of 100 words that most dogs can learn to react to. Most of them are simple “word need reaction” tiebacks like “NO”, “FETCH”, “BELLY”, “LEASH”, “BED”,  “TOY” and so on.  You know your dog isn’t down to clown when you say “EAT”, “Time for FOOD” or whatever phrase you use for suppertime.  And don’t think this is about “word with physical command = learning”. Sure that helps and gives your dog another connection to a type of language. Deaf dogs use hand gestures to learn simple repeated commands, words, and phrases. So, there is a link there… A can equal B in the dogs mind, for certain. But not so fast… studies show that A without B, or B without A, still drives the dog to learn and perform. One is not needed for the other to succeed, the combination is still dependent on the “hook”… the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) for your dog.  After all, isn’t that what you learn in a training class with your puppy? Show them the WIIFM, reward good behavior, be positive, reinforce any success and it will be repeated. Dog’s like to please, and be praised, and get treats.

Just so you know, there is a standard list of words that 90% of all dogs seem to pick up on more quickly. Here are the Top 8 words that Doggo’s seem to respond to the most…

  • Sit (of course, we’ve been over how that one works)

  • NO (how many times does a puppy through toddler dog hear that one)

  • Stay (some get the meaning behind this, while others ignore it… but they all recognize it)

  • Wait (similar to stay)

  • Okay (words of approval are big, and drive desired rewards)

  • Come (similar to stay)

  • Down (another treat driver)

  • “Good boy/girl” (hearing this means they did something wonderful, so it’s a winner)

Plus, the majority of dogs know their name. In fact, most dogs know their names AND the other 5 to 15 names you call them.  There is this pet owner who had a dog named Sophie. He also called his dog Mamie, So, Pony, Dee, and about 20 other “PET” names. Darned if that dog didn’t listen and react to every one of the extra names, and understand they all meant he was talking to or about her.  Of course, this same owner would say “OUTSIDE”, “OUTER SPACE”, and “OUTSTANDING” on a rotating basis. Poor Sophie responded to each by going to the front door (see the paragraph above on how dogs are really only hearing the first part of a word and reacting to that HARD sound).

How do I Teach my Dog New Words?

Easy peasy (which is a great name for any new puppy, by the way). Here are some tips to help you get your dogs vocab to a new level;

#1 Isolate to Indoctrinate – Let’s face it, dogs have a short attention span and are easily distracted by anything from a butterfly in the yard, to a slide whistle on TV. By controlling WHERE and HOW the lessons are taught, you run a better chance of success. Pick a quiet spot, somewhere they are comfortable, free from interference of other humans and animals. THEN, make that their “Training Central” so that they know this room = learning, fun and treats.

#2 Make it a BIG Snack Attack – If you’re winning while learning, it’s more fun. Dogs love treats and rewards, so load up on goodies. Celebrate any win with a reward, this builds positive reinforcement of that behavior and a desire to repeat it. Recognition of the word, then acting on the recognition, that is food worthy!

#3 Use the KISS Method in the Beginning – Keep it Simple, Stupid… use easy, one syllable words that they will hear over and over during their lives. Unless you have a real reason for them to learn “Cybernetics”, don’t start there. Those top 8 words are great starting places, the words are easy and a benefit for the dog to know.

#4 Be the Kind of Teacher YOU Would Want to Learn From – Don’t get frustrated, angry or negative if Butch isn’t responding right away. Different dogs learn in different time frames, so don’t get judgy or push the pace. Talk in a positive, upbeat, sweet, and happy tone. Demonstrate the action associated with the word. If you’re teaching their name, give affection to them as you’re saying it. If you’re asking for their “PAW”, put the paw in their hand every time you say the word until they recognize the reaction expected for the sound.

#5 Take Your Time, Speed Racer – One word, then once that word is understood and you see the reaction you’re looking for… move on.  Also, avoid repeating the same word over and over and over for a single expected reaction.  If you say “Down… Down… Down… Down” and demonstrate the meaning of the word, they will expect to hear it four time and not respond to a single “Down”.

#6 Praise is JUST as important as treats –  You know your dog goes nuts when you are excited, so be excited FOR their successes. Say all the wonderful things you can think of (remembering that it’s more about your tone and delivery than the actual words)

#7 Mix it Up, Mix it Up, Then Throw it in a Pan – If you want to teach them what the word ball means, and you just put a ball in their face every time… the lesson is BALL = Shoving that round thing in my face. However, if you put a ball on the floor, point at it and say “BALL”… then roll the ball to them and say “BALL”, then the lesson BALL = Round thing.

#8 Support can be Beautiful – If you’re the only one teaching, then there is the chance that they will only react if YOU say the words. Bring in someone else they love and want to please to say the lesson word, as well.  If “Good Boy” from YOU and “Good Boy” from their other parent drives the same positive reaction, then “Good Boy” is a good word, and one to remember.

If you follow this lesson plan, your dog will enjoy and want to have fun learning new things. Heck, some dogs even take it to another level and attempt to mimic the sounds they hear. We’ve all seen videos or dogs making noises that sound like “MOM” or “HELLO” or “NO”.  It’s just another path your Doggo see’s to pleasing you, being popular, winning treats and praises, and endearing themselves to the people they love the most.  

Remember, graduating to phrases from single words are better. The word “DINNER” is great, but saying “Time for DINNER”, “What’s for DINNER”, “Did you like that “DINNER” will train them to react to the phrase WITH the word in it, not just the word itself. It’s just the next logical step in vocabulary maturity.

That’s our 101 Lesson on what dogs REALLY know about words, how to teach them more, and steps to making that training easy. We hope you found this useful, and will start to up your dogs vocab to new and better heights. Who knows, you may have the next DogVinci on your hands!

We’d like to invite you back next week for another Dog Blog from the Crown Prince of Peeks, as we research, review, release and give you a new revelation, when you find out what #FreddieSez. Till then, have a great week and weekend. Take time out to hug your fur kids, today and everyday!