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Do dogs understand words?

communication dogs understanding words

Does Your Dog Understand words?

If you say "walk" or "walkies," your dog will probably leap up, wagging his tail and barking excitedly, ready to enjoy a run outside. He may sniff your boots or coat before waiting expectantly at the front door. But does he know that word? Can he understand the English language, as you can? If so, he must be a genius by animal standards. Or does he just recognise the overall sound of the word, or is he responding to a more profound signal, one that occurs alongside your spoken word? What wavelength is your dog on, exactly? Here are some possible answers to consider.

Your voice

When you address your dog with a familiar word, he is likely to respond more to your tone of voice than to the letter sounds involved. You probably have a tendency to say the word to him in a particular way, perhaps in a higher or lower voice than usual, or with more emphasis. The dog quickly learns to connect this delivery with the event that follows. 

Try saying almost the same word in the same way, but with its hard sounds changed. Instead of saying "walkies," for instance, say "torpies," and see how he reacts then.  He'll probably dash to the front door as usual. Now try saying the same word in a different tone of voice. He's likely to respond less positively, suggesting that it's chiefly your tone of voice he's responding to.

Your actions

When you announce imminent events in your dog's day, such as his evening walk, you may also do certain things, such as walk toward the front door, put your coat and shoes on, and pick up your keys. These are all the signals your dog needs, although the sound of the customary word helps too. He may glean clues from obscurer signals as well. If you have a habit of posting letters or calling in at a shop while out, for instance, he may put 2 and 2 together at the sight of a letter or shopping bag in your hand. 

The circumstances

When you announce a familiar daily event, such as a walk, your dog will associate it with feelings he experiences at that time of the day, such as pent-up energy and a need to relieve himself. If you normally give him his dinner on return, he may also associate your word with a hunger pang. The level of daylight, traffic noise, and other time-linked factors may also provide clues to the meaning of your word. Who knows what other hidden signals he may be reading?


If you think your dog is intelligent, you're probably right. Dogs have a higher IQ than many other animals, and your dog may be particularly bright for his species. But dogs do not think in the same way as humans, despite their mysterious, instinctive insights that make them fascinating pets to own. Your dog may not know the meaning of "meaning," but he may know that the click of a certain car door, in a parking space further down the road, at a certain hour of the evening, signals the return of your partner from work. Would you know that?

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