How Many Words Can a Dog Understand?

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.

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

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%) have a vocabulary of around 250 words, on par with a 2½-year-old child, Dr. Coren says.

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.

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

  • The smartest dogs, he says are Border Collies, poodles and German Shepherds.
  • The not-so-smart dogs are borzois, chow chows and Bulldogs.
  • And what is the dumbest dog breed, according to the doc? Sorry, Afghan Hound families, but your dog won’t be winning the spelling bee.

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.

For example, when my pit bull, Bunker, is out for playtime, all I have to do is say, “Bunker, pen!” and he heads straight to his dog pen.

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Tone of Voice, Body Language

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.