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How Dogs Understand Human Language: Insights & Experiments | Canine Communication

Explore how dogs understand human language through tones, gestures, and emotional cues. Learn about canine communication and the factors that shape their comprehension.

How do dogs understand what we say?

Understanding how dogs comprehend human language and communication. How is it possible for dogs to understand us when we talk to them? First, they learn the meaning of words just as we do: by attributing a particular mental representation to the sound through a course of experience.

How do dogs understand human language, and what do they know? There is no doubt that dogs also understand us when we speak; anyone who has lived or lives with one knows this. So let us see how and what they understand the words we speak.

Luna, come on, let’s go for a walk!” “That’s enough; stop barking!” “Look what I have here for you….” phrases like these and many others are expected within the house’s walls where a four-legged dog lives. The dogs’ reaction makes it clear that they understand what we say and act accordingly.

But how can they understand us when we talk to them? After all, when you think about it, dogs’ communication is not made up of ‘words’, yet anyone who lives with a dog would be willing to swear that they understand us, even more than we would like, sometimes. And indeed, they do.

Language is a complicated thing.

First, we must make it clear that what we convey when we speak is not just and not only the meanings of the words spoken but there is much more. In addition to the mere meanings of words, other elements are perceived and of great importance in communication, not only with the dog but also between humans.

These elements are the ‘way‘ in which we pronounce sentences and words and what we ‘do‘ while speaking. Regarding the ‘way, ‘ we think about how important the tone of voice, the speed with which we pronounce words, and the intonation can be. These elements impact the meaning of our words and carry much weight, sometimes even more than the words’ meaning.

The tone of voice is fundamental.

Consider, for example, the difference in uttering a simple phrase such as “Kyle, come here“. This appeal could be shouted, conveying anger and nervousness, or persuasive, calm, and relaxed. Although the sentence’s literal meaning does not change, what we say does.

If we then think about our facial expressions, hand gestures, and body posture as we utter these words, we can understand that our interlocutor might interpret our terms differently.

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Since the dog is a relational animal, through experience, it will therefore learn to attribute meanings to all these elements that will be declined within its relationship with its interlocutor. Suppose the person saying, “Jack, come here” is the dog’s human companion or the veterinary doctor to give a clear example. In that case, the response might be very different, but that does not mean he has not understood the meaning of the words.

Dogs understand; they look at you, and they listen to you.

How do dogs understand what we say?
Dogs listen to us.

Apart from their incredible ability to understand para-verbal language, dogs are also very adept at understanding the meanings of individual words. It would be more appropriate to say that they can attribute definitions to our words.

This is possible thanks to several factors, including the dog’s cognitive faculties and nature as a social animal, but also something unique to dogs in the animal kingdom: their interest in us.

Science comes to our support.

One of the central elements for our language to be understood by other species is that it must, in the first place, be of interest to the listener. Many animals can understand, with experience, the meaning of human language. One thinks of Dr Irene Pepperberg’s research with the grey parrot Alex.

The fact is, however, that dogs seem to have a particular orientation and interest in understanding our language, not only the spoken language but also that which is expressed through our facial expressions and gestures, as demonstrated by Dr Juliane Kaminski of the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (‘The Intelligent Dog in His Way’ – 2008).

Thus, dogs are particularly interested in understanding our language and have the cognitive faculties to translate it into meanings that make sense to them.

The reason may be inherent in the millennia-long coexistence that brought together the talents of the two species, dogs and humans, to better understand each other. Understanding each other can be considered an important evolutionary factor for both. Since we represent the dog’s evolutionary niche from the very beginning, it was vital for them to understand our intentions when they began to narrow their distance. Even today, those who understand the difference between a friendly human and one with bad choices survive and thrive; the other does not.

The meaning of words and why dogs understand

So, how do dogs learn the meaning of words? To simplify, we can answer that they do it just as we do, i.e. by attributing a particular mental representation to a sound through a course of experience.

Let’s try, for example, a little experiment. First, let us choose a word that the dog has never heard pronounced, preferably a term we invented ourselves to be on the safe side, like “XYZ”. Then let’s get a container full of treats such as very fragrant biscuits or the like. Finally, let us put the container out of reach and out of sight of the dog, perhaps inside a drawer or on the bookshelf. We then move away from there, especially if our dog has been watching us with interest.

Let some time pass, almost forgetting about the container with the biscuits. Then, the next day, at any time during the day, we say the chosen word (XYZ) for the first time while our dog observes us; we try to do so without giving any particular emphasis to the word, without adding any specific expressions or gestures, a bit like when we answer someone who has asked us the time.

Our dog will look at us perplexed.

How do dogs understand what we say?
Dog communication.

Of course, that sound we made will have no meaning for our dog, who will look at us with a big question mark between the creases of his forehead. (P.S.: avoid pronouncing the word as if it were an order from an S.S. officer; you are not asking the dog anything!). After a few seconds, let us move towards the cabinet where the container is hidden.

Let’s do this without being particularly inviting or engaging the dog. We pick up the container and drop the biscuit (or whatever we have chosen, knowing that the dog particularly likes it) on the floor. If the dog follows us and stands beside us while we do this, we can treat him directly. Let’s neutrally do this as if it is unimportant to us.

Then we put it back in the cupboard and resumed doing what we had done before, leaving the dog to mull over what had happened without interfering. It might even be that he follows us around, waiting for history to repeat itself, but for today, it will not happen again.

The next day, we repeat it all over again, at any time, and observe the dog’s reactions, expressions, emotional changes, and behaviour at the mere mention of the unknown word (XYZ).

Inference example

After a few days, the dog will understand the meaning of that sound, or rather, what happens when we pronounce it. It will have built up a mental representation linked to that word and make us understand it, for example, by getting excited at just hearing it.

This faculty is called ‘inference‘; dogs are well equipped with this cognitive function and apply it continuously, not only with words and sounds but also to understand gestures, emotional states, and behaviours that affect us and, more generally, to give meaning to things in the world.

It is essential to understand that dogs learn the meaning of what we say and do regardless of our intention to teach them anything, and they are masters at this precisely because we are – even forcibly at times – the centre of their world. We determine everything that happens in their lives. This means that dogs have an enormous amount of information about us, thanks to their memory, an essential cognitive component which grows from moment to moment.

Repeating the straightforward experiment, it could quickly happen that when we hear ‘the word’, the dog immediately stands under the cabinet or drawer where we have placed the biscuits, anticipating us. For him, that sound (XYZ) will mean that we, wherever we are in the house, will, after pronouncing it, head for that precise spot (where the container is hidden) and give him something very delicious. It is important to note that the emotional state generated by the experience will determine the dog’s learning and attribution of meaning.

Understanding a concept

But what happens if one day we pronounce that word the same way somewhere else? For example, while we are in the park or walking in a forest? Several things can happen here. First, let us try to do it at an appropriate time, i.e. while our dog is quiet and not engaged in some activity, such as sniffing a trail while playing with other dogs, etc.

We observe his expressions: we will probably see that question mark appear again that we saw the first few times, but it could also be that the dog responds by increasing his level of excitement (his arousal), and perhaps he will look around, trying to guess where we might have put the container with the biscuits. He might even bark at us to say: “What on earth are you talking about? It’s not like we are at home here!”. But if, for example, we had prepared ourselves by putting that container in the backpack we placed there on the bench and took it out after pronouncing XYZ, our dog would light up. In this case, we are generalising a meaning. We are promoting learning a concept linked to that sound in the dog.

The sound associated with categorisation

Suppose before, in the mental representation aroused by the sound, the events were always the same, i.e., us going to the cupboard or the specific drawer and taking the container. From now on, that sound will mean we are about to give him something outstanding, no matter where we are.

Therefore, it is no longer essential that one is at home and that the container is placed in a specific place. Generalisation is another of the dog’s cognitive faculties, as are categorisation, discrimination, etc. The more the dog experiences, the more adept it will become at using these faculties, like muscles that become stronger and more elastic the more we use them.

The words of dogs

How do dogs understand what we say?
The dogs will learn an infinite number of words.

Of course, by living with us, the dog will learn an infinite number of meanings and words, but let us remember that how they are pronounced is of great importance. When we address the dog, we often convey more an emotional state than a literal meaning. So, if we try to use very offensive, brutal, aggressive, but joyfully spoken words, our dog will get the emotion, not the purpose.

This also applies to the gestures we make and the postures we assume, which are more important aspects of communication for the dog than the literal meaning of sentences or words. But it is not so different for us if we think about it! In fact, how much more difficult is it to make ourselves truly understood when we write as opposed to when we are face-to-face with an interlocutor? Our speech is dense with para-verbal cues that we miss when we cannot see the other person or when we cannot hear their voice and the way they speak.

The dog listens to us more than we are led to believe.

In any case, in everyday life, the dog gets used to the fact that we are constantly using this way of communicating; we use an infinite number of words. As a result, the dog often seems to ignore what we say, but in reality, he listens to us more than we are led to believe. For him, however, only some of the words we say emerge because they are linked to particular important meanings, to representations. So, for example, words like ‘bath’ or “let’s go”, ‘vet’, or, trivially, his name may spark his interest, even if we are not speaking directly to him.

Of course, what also matters is the context; as we said above, a representation, a meaning, is dense with elements, so it is likely that if we pronounce the word “vet” while lying on a lovely deserted beach, the only reaction we might get from the dog is the raising of an eyebrow as he snoozes curled up next to us. It would be quite different if that word were uttered while we were walking through the streets of the town… perhaps in the vicinity of the veterinary clinic that he knows and perhaps fears (forgive us, vets, who read us, who are often victims of this type of example, here it is certainly not meant to say that dogs have always had bad experiences with them, on the contrary! It is just a way of being more understandable to readers).

Dogs understand. Learning a language

While dogs demonstrate all this, we might find it difficult to deliberately teach them the meaning of something (mind you, teaching something does not necessarily mean ‘commanding’ something, as many believe). But here, we should not ask ourselves questions about the dogs’ cognitive faculties but about our abilities and the consistency of what we want to teach and, again, about all the companionship accompanying our way of communicating with him.

In short, if our dog does not understand us, first of all, we should question ourselves: most probably, we are making some mistake; there is certainly something we are missing, and it is not always so easy to understand. Perhaps we are not considering his character, interests, past experiences, emotional states in the here and now, and so on.

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Verbal language isn’t everything.

Furthermore, it must be said that due to our nature, we perhaps attach too much importance to verbal language and too little to everything else, especially when we relate to our four-legged companion. We often demand that he should understand us without doing anything to make us know him. We are so proud of our intelligence and brains in pointing out how much more gifted we are than other animals, but then we demand that others understand our language, not theirs. And that is a contradiction in itself.

Discovering what a dog can ‘say‘ to us opens the door to a fantastic world, much broader and more interesting, but first of all, we have to listen; we have to learn its ‘language‘, however, limited we may be in our understanding, we have to make an effort to do this. So let us try, at least as much as they do towards us. Then, our relationship will no longer be so unbalanced on us, on our often incomprehensible monologues and rants. It will certainly benefit, and understanding will be a natural occurrence, as it has been for thousands of years, always provided that the time shared is adequate, in short, that the relationship with him is fulfilling for both of us and rich in shared experiences.

Thank you for reading the article to the end. Your reading contribution was significant to us.

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The "Frenchie Breed" website is a blog aimed at dog owners. We regularly publish articles about our four-legged furry friends. Among the contents of our blog, you will find ample space on the latest news in the sector, with information and in-depth analysis dedicated to the world of dogs in all its forms, the latest trends and news of the moment, curious facts, events devoted to dogs, product reviews, as well as an intense activity of information regarding the health and well-being of pets.

Please Note: The articles in the 'Frenchie Breed Blog' are for information purposes only; nothing published can or should be construed as an attempt to offer professional advice or consultation with a physician, veterinary surgeon or another health professional.

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Written by Frenchie Breed

The "Frenchie Breed" website is a blog aimed at dog owners. We regularly publish articles about our four-legged furry friends. Among the contents of our blog, you will find ample space on the latest news in the sector, with information and in-depth analysis dedicated to the world of dogs in all its forms, the latest trends and news of the moment, curious facts, events devoted to dogs, product reviews, as well as an intense activity of information regarding the health and well-being of pets.

Please Note: The articles in the 'Frenchie Breed Blog' are for information purposes only; nothing published can or should be construed as an attempt to offer professional advice or consultation with a physician, veterinary surgeon or another health professional.

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