Do Dogs Understand Words?

When you talk to your dog, does he cock his head as if he is really listening to what you are telling him? Do dogs understand words? Pet expert Arden Moore writes that dogs understand your voice tone more than the actual words to gauge if you are delivering praise or discipline. Try this test. Stiffen your muscles, grab a telephone book, and begin to call out the names alphabetically in a stern, low tone in front of him. Watch his response. I bet he will glance your way, crouch down, and move away from you almost as if to say, “I can tell you’re angry and Im not sure why.”

Now repeat the exercise, but this time, relax your muscles, sit on the floor, and call out the names in thephone book in a cheery, musical tone. Watch what he does. He will probably race over to you with a circular wag and a happy, open-mouth grin and try to give you kisses.

The same words spoken in a different tone elicit different reactioins from your dog. Although tone matters more, many dogs do understand specific words and phrases. That’s because we have been consistent when speaking these words followed by a particular action.

Next: Rico the Wonder Dog

Rico the Wonder Dog
In a 2005 study published in Science, German researchers reported that Rico, a Border collie, comprehends more than 200 words–a vocabulary size similar to that of trained apes, dolphins, and parrots. Rico can fetch at least 200 objects by name and seems able to expand his word knowledge bank.

Rico’s ability to learn new words is explained by a process known as fast mapping. This technique allows dogs to form a quick and rough hypothesis about he meaning of a new word after a single exposure to the item in question. The experimenters sent Rico into a room that contained eight items, seven of which were familiar to him. Rico did not know the name of the eighth object, but in seven out of ten tests, he appropriately retrieved a different novel item.

Excerpted from The Dog Behavior Answer Book (Storey, 2006) by Arden Moore.

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Val M.
Val M.2 years ago


Elisa F.
Elisa F.2 years ago

Of course they do! Thanks for sharing :)

Ryder W.
Past Member 4 years ago

my dog understands everything i say. she's a great listener.

Melinda K.
Past Member 4 years ago

And whats not mentioned is when they act like they dont understand, like when you say "Bathtime" and the slink off under the bed! I remember after I adopted Paradise our dog (now passed) and in a sentence to someone else I said the word biscuit and her ears popped up, I said it again and she got really excited, whoever had owner her before taught her that word. They do pick up words when you say things to others, they are very smart and have their own complex methods of communicating as well. Its amazing that some humans thinks words are the apex of communicator and the benchmark for superiority - ego!!!

Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun4 years ago

Great article. Thank you for this.

Lindsey Williams
Lindsey Williams4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Diana S.
Diana S.4 years ago

I've tested my dogs by saying the same sentence in many different tones, volumes, speeds, and at different times of day, and they understood what I was saying every time. They know the WORDS and the tone.

Frederico D.


Sheila M.
Sheila M.4 years ago

Animals understand WORDS. I have cats - when I say - Who wants to eat - they run to the kitchen. When I say - Who wants to go out - they run to the back door. Almost the exact words said in the exact tone of voice and they know the difference.

heather g.
heather g.4 years ago

I believe we have only scratched the surface when it comes to learning the capabilities of animals' brains. Dogs do possess phenominal strengths related to dealing with diseases eg smelling cancer, snuggling up to people on their death bed and many more.