Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 15, 2021

Humor writer Dave Barry once wrote, "You can say any fool thing to a dog, and the dog will just give you this look that says, 'My GOSH, you're RIGHT! I NEVER would've thought of that!" Most dog owners will admit that they talk freely to their dogs, and their dogs always seem to appreciate their thoughts. But even the most intelligent dogs in the world don't really understand everything their humans say.

Even if your dog never fully grasps most of what you tell them, most dogs can learn quite a few verbal commands. Experts have studied dogs to know whether they grasp the meaning of words or if they respond to the tone of voice and context clues. Learn more about how much your dog can understand.

Dog Intelligence

Some experts in dog behavior estimate that the average dog has intelligence similar to that of a human toddler. Like a 2-year-old child, dogs can understand between 100 and 200 words. They recognize the words in verbal commands as well as commands that are given with physical gestures.

Dogs are capable of problem-solving. Dogs can figure out the best path to get to a favorite toy or treat. They can learn to push buttons or operate latches to get into a space that’s blocked off. Some dogs can learn to count and do simple arithmetic.

Word Recognition

Every dog owner knows that certain words will send their dog into a frenzy of excitement. Say the phrase " let's go for a walk," and your dog might run for the door expecting a quick trip around the block. Some dogs seem so attuned to certain words like "walk" that their owners have to spell them instead of saying them aloud.

Experts find that dogs recognize important words. In some cases, the dog responds to the word itself. In other cases, dogs recognize the tone of voice and body language humans use as well as the words. A dog who ignores the word "walk" if you say it into the phone will get excited if you say it while also getting their leash.

Dogs might not have a perfect understanding of command words, but they understand the basic sound of important words. In one study, researchers found that dogs respond the same way to nonsense words that sound like familiar command words. For example, a dog might still sit if you give them the command but say "sid" or "git".

Researchers also found that dogs don't respond to nonsense words that don't sound like command words. The tone of voice humans used didn't change that. Even if you use your normal tone and body language, your dog won't sit if you say a word like "fluff" or "book" in place of the word sit.

What Does This Mean for Dog Owners?

Your dog will probably never learn enough vocabulary words to ace the SATs. But dogs can learn enough to have a meaningful connection with their owners. Dogs listen to humans and easily learn to recognize words, gestures, and tone.

If you want your dog to be attentive and obedient, you can take advantage of their verbal abilities. Use a few basic training strategies to teach them how to obey.

Choose your words. Plan ahead when training a dog to respond to words. Pick words that you can use only for commands. Avoid words that you often say in conversation with people. That way, your dog knows those words only have one meaning.

Be consistent. Use the same words the same way every time. Pair command words with the same gesture and tone of voice. Always reward your dog for following the command. This way, they will associate the word with the action and with a treat or praise.

Keep it simple. Remember that your dog's vocabulary is limited. Stick to commands that are only one or two words.

Positive reinforcement. The best way to reinforce training is with positive rewards. Dogs want to please people. You can take advantage of that by using praise, treats, and favorite toys to reward good behavior. Your dog associates command words with the special attention they get after following the command.

Short and sweet. Don't overwhelm your dog with too many commands at once. Do multiple short training sessions. Work on one verbal command at a time. Once your dog has mastered one skill, move on to the next one.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Kennel Club: "How Much Language Do Dogs Really Understand?"

American Psychological Association: "Smarter Than You Think: Renowned Canine Researcher Puts Dogs' Intelligence on Par with 2-Year-Old Human."

RSPCA: "Dog training."

VCA Hospitals: "Eavesdropping Dogs...Do Dogs Understand Our Conversations?" "Human-Canine Communication: Tone vs. Volume."

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