Does my dog understand me?

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Does my dog understand me?

A dog is a woman’s best friend and has been since the beginning of time. I wish I could take my dog Henry everywhere with me – work, restaurants, weddings, amusement parks, zoos – because he’s fun and does hilarious things and would make every terrible situation (like baby showers) better. I also wish he could text and discuss Making A Murderer and be my designated driver. I know we’re tight, but does he really get me? I’m Chris Tucker, and he’s Jackie Chan — but does he understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?

One easy way you can tell if he understands you is by looking at him when you speak to him. When you say something to him, which direction does he turn his head? Research at the University of Sussex in England shows that if he turns his head to the right, he knows exactly what you’re saying, but if he turns his head to the left, he doesn’t have a clue.

The direction dogs turn their heads has to do with how they process sound: familiar sounds are processed on the left (hence the left-head tilt) and unfamiliar sounds are processed on the right. What’s more, the study suggests that the processing of speech components in a dog’s brain is divided between the two hemispheres much like a human’s brain, proving dogs and humans share similarities in how they process language.

Victoria Ratcliffe, the graduate student who co-wrote the study, said, "Although we cannot say how much or in what way dogs understand information in speech from our study, we can say that dogs react to both verbal and speaker-related information and that these components appear to be processed in different areas of the dog’s brain."

According to Animal Planet, the average trained dog knows 165 words. They understand words as sounds or melodies, but they do not understand English or Spanish or any other human created language. (However, some do know sign language.) When they’re being trained to "sit" or "stay", they start to associate the word (sound) to a behavior and, ultimately, to a reward of praise or a treat. (Henry also knows how to ignore a sound, request, or command, and I don’t need a study to prove that – I can see it in his eyes.)

Chaser, a border collie from South Carolina, knows 1,022 words and commands to go with them. Another border collie named Rico knows more than 200 words and was able to fetch specific items and unfamiliar items (using the process of elimination) for researchers from the Max Planck Institute.

What’s more, Rico remembered the words he was taught one month after he learned them, showing a vocabulary and memory as impressive as a toddler’s. Dogs, like children, associate words and sounds with objects and actions. For example, dogs associate crying at the door in order to go outside the same way children associate crying for a bottle in order to get food. However, dogs, unlike children, never make that next step from associating objects and actions to using those associations to speak words.

Remember, though, communication is more than just words – it’s also about abstract concepts like context and identity and concrete concepts like tone and body language. We as humans communicate differently depending on who we’re around because words, phrases, and actions mean different things to different people. Saying "yo" or "what’s up" is not as acceptable to your boss as it is to your friend, but dogs don’t understand abstract concepts like that. They understand concrete concepts (that they’re tied up outside) but not abstract concepts (because if they’re not tied up, they can run away and be lost forever).

Although dogs don’t understand abstract ideas, they do understand concrete concepts. When their owner says something, in addition to knowing the word or sound, tone and body language also help them better understand their owner.

Tone. Dogs pick up on tone and inflection and can tell by your voice if what they did was a good or bad thing. When you say "good girl," it’s best to say it sweetly or with happiness or excitement because you want to emphasize that you are proud of her behavior and that you want her to continue doing good things like that. Use deep, stern, serious inflection when she does something unfavorable like has an accident in the house or nips at another dog.

Body language. In addition to words, posture, context, and daily routines play a vital role in canine communication, says Jessica Beymer, DVM, of the Contra Costa Veterinary Emergency Center. Body language helps emphasize what you’re already saying and helps your dog follow instructions more readily (especially when you’re training him). For example, if you’re teaching him to lay down, dragging the treat in a downward angle from standing or sitting position to the floor will further emphasize what you’d like him to do and where you’d like him to go. Since his eyes are already undoubtedly following the treat, he will more clearly understand what you’re asking of him. (When I’m telling Henry to get off the sofa, I sharply say "off" and point from the sofa to the floor.) Certain studies show that dogs pick up on human gestures and cues better than other animals, including apes.

So maybe your dog knows 165 words, but you want (and expect) more from her. You want her to be a dog genius and really speak, not just bark. If you want your dog to be more like Chaser or Rico...

Train her. John Pilley, Chaser’s owner, said, "When we put two objects on the floor and asked dogs to retrieve each object by name, they couldn’t do it; simultaneous discrimination wasn’t working. Instead, Chaser was able to learn the names of objects through successive discrimination. She would play with one object in each training session, and through play, the object assumed value. We’d name the object, hide it and ask her to find it. Discrimination testing between the names of different objects occurred later."

But that training didn’t occur overnight. Julia Fischer, group leader at the German Primate Center Cognitive Ethology Lab, said motivation needs to occur with both owner and dog and that a dog’s use of human language is largely dependent on the willingness of the owner to establish a verbal relationship, linking words with particular meanings. Pilley began training Chaser to identify objects when she was five months old, and Pilley repeated objects 20-40 times per session to make sure Chaser got it. Other dogs like Chaser were trained and tested two to three times a day, three to six times a week.

Test her. Does she understand your words as you intend them or does she have a completely different understanding? Change the context of what you’re saying to see what your dog perceives. For example, does she know "bed" because it’s nighttime or because she knows what a bed is and where it’s located? If you say, "It’s time for bed" at noon in your work clothes, will she go there or will she go only when it’s dark outside and you’re wearing pajamas? Same with "walk" – does she know it when you say it in a normal tone sitting on the couch or only if her leash is in your hand and you’re by the door?

Although there is no doubt that dogs understand humans, what and how much they understand are still up for debate. Dogs don’t understand abstract concepts, but they do have an impressive ability to understand sound, tone, and body language, and that’s cool enough for me. Henry is already pretty S-A-S-S-Y, and I enjoy our current relationship and feel we understand each other pretty well. Truthfully, I fear what havoc he’d wreak if he could use emoji.

Image: Roy Montgomery