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Your Happy Pet: Does Your Dog Understand What You Say?

Original Publication Date: October 6, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

A 2004 article in Science reported Rico, an exceptionally bright border collie, was taught to accurately respond to 200 words. People were astounded. John Pilley, a retired Wofford College psychology professor, read the article and decided to repeat the experiment with Chaser, his border collie puppy. He worked with Chaser four to five hours each day until her vocabulary reached 1,022 words.

Your dog may not develop the vocabulary of Rico or Chaser, but he or she probably knows quite a few words. Many of his or her words are probably objects like ball, the name of a favorite stuffed toy, dinner, cookie or leash. Your dog connects the names of objects with pleasurable actions, such as playing fetch, eating or going on a walk and are easily learned.

Then, there are strictly action words. New dog owners are usually anxious to teach their pup to come, sit, stay, down, heel and off. Some say these behavior actions are a matter of training. While training is definitely necessary, Pilley has shown Chaser does not hear "fetch sock" as a single term but can distinguish the action "fetch" as separate from the object "sock."

Training and consistency are definitely important when working with a dog. He or she gleans much from your body language, the tone of your voice and prosody - the rhythm, stress and intonation of your speech. You take in another person's body language, hand gestures, facial expression, tone of voice and more when you are involved in a conversation - so does your dog.

If you smile and say the abstract term "naughty dog" in a lilting melodious tone, your dog will probably interpret it as high praise because he or she is looking at the whole package not the intangible phrase "naughty dog."

Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia professor emeritus and a leader in the study of dog behavior, says the average dog knows about 165 words, including signs, signals and gestures. This actually puts them on a mental par with a 2-year-old toddler. Dogs need the same consistency one uses when teaching a toddler. Use their name when addressing them, and always use the same word for an item. Don't say, "Rover, Frisbee" one time and "Rover, disc" the next. Similarly, always use the same term when you are doing an action in which the dog is involved like "dinner" when feeding. The term doesn't matter as long as it's consistent for the action.

Your dog may not be able to carry on a verbal conversation with you, but he or she probably knows many words. Pay attention to tone and body language, and his or her responsive tail wags and cuddles. Communication between the two of you will be meaningful as both of you will sense the care and concern you feel for each other.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at