Can Dogs Understand Humans? Be Delighted by How They Can Learn Up to 165 Words!

According to experts, intelligent dogs can learn around 165 words. But spoken language isn’t the only means by which our dogs try to understand us.

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Help your dog increase his vocabulary by saying his name first and then the command or the name of an object you want him to learn (e.g., “Jammer…ball!”) Photo: xiaosa

For centuries, dogs have been labeled as “man’s best friend,” a testament to their loyalty and the special bond they share with humans. This deep-seated relationship has often led to intriguing questions about the extent of canine comprehension. So, can dogs understand humans? Recent studies and observations shed light on this question, revealing the multifaceted ways in which dogs perceive and respond to human behavior.

Animals Who Understand Words

Since the 1970s, when it was confirmed that chimpanzees could be trained to read and use words in sign language, we have known that language is not unique to humans. After all, parrots can be trained to talk, and my Chihuahua certainly understands when I say the words “Want to go…?” Most of the time she beats me to the door.

Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychologist and an expert on dog intelligence, says the average trained dog knows about 165 words. (And most dogs can count to 4 or 5 — which, Dr. Coren admits, wouldn’t exactly make a very good accountant.) The smartest dogs (top 20%) can understand around 250 words, on par with a 2½-year-old child, Dr. Coren says.

Not every breed was created equally in the brains department, however. Here’s Dr. Coren’s take on particular dogs and their smarts:

Knowing a word and actually understanding the language — well, those are 2 different matters. While dogs appear to comprehend our language, could it be that they are simply reacting to our signals or tone of voice?

Studies show that dogs pick up on human gestures and cues better than most animals (even great apes). A dog trainer will swear to you that it’s much easier to teach dogs a desired behavior by using hand signals than by speaking words. Why? Because dogs are so good at reading our (nonverbal) body language.

So, do our dogs actually understand the 165 words they know? It’s not clear.

But we do know — without a doubt — that all of our canine friends have an amazing way of understanding us.

How to Teach Your Dog New Words

Most pups know the basics (sit, stay, lie down), but your pet is capable of increasing his vocabulary and knowledge with your motivation and patience in teaching him new words.

To help your pet learn more words, acknowledge his achievements when he does what he is told to do. The same way in which we teach our children, words will work well with our dogs, too.

Showing him a ball while saying the word “ball” allows him to associate the 2. Also, for good results, always say your dog’s name first, then the word you are teaching him.

Take the German Shepherd in this video for example, he listens carefully and even responds!

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Tone of Voice and Body Language

1. Understanding Through Communication

Dogs have an innate ability to understand certain aspects of human communication. Through domestication, they have evolved to recognize a variety of commands and cues from their human counterparts. Training techniques harness this ability, teaching dogs to follow commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “heel.” However, dogs’ understanding goes beyond just obeying orders; they are also adept at interpreting the tone and urgency in our voices. A joyful tone can excite a dog, while a stern one might cue them to stop unwanted behavior.

2. Emotional Perception

Dogs are incredibly sensitive to human emotions. They can read facial expressions, body language, and even changes in scent related to different emotional states. Studies have shown that dogs can differentiate between happy and angry facial expressions and are likely to approach a person who is smiling rather than frowning. Their ability to sense emotions is so acute that they often become attuned to their owner’s feelings, providing comfort during stressful or sad times.

3. Social Cognition

Canine intelligence also extends to social cognition, a critical aspect of understanding human behavior. Dogs are skilled at following human gestures, such as pointing or looking in a certain direction, to find hidden food or toys. This indicates not just a reaction to the gesture, but an understanding of the intent behind it—a cognitive process known as “theory of mind,” which was once thought to be uniquely human.

4. The Role of Bonding

The bond between a dog and its owner plays a crucial role in how well a dog can understand human actions and commands. A strong, positive relationship can enhance a dog’s attentiveness and willingness to learn from human cues. This bond is built on mutual trust and affection, further enabling dogs to tune into human emotions and behaviors.

So, Can Dogs Understand Humans?

While dogs may not understand humans in the same way that humans understand each other, they have developed remarkable abilities to communicate with and comprehend us. Their skills in interpreting our commands, emotions, and social cues demonstrate a form of understanding that, while different from human language, is profoundly effective.

Whether it’s following a command or providing empathetic support, dogs continually prove that their understanding of humans is both complex and deeply ingrained in their nature. This enduring comprehension not only underscores their role as beloved pets but also highlights the unique interspecies communication that exists between dogs and humans.