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Does your dog understand what you are saying?

Do you talk to your dog? Tell them about your day and how you are, ask them questions? I certainly do, but how much does our dogs really understand and does it matter how we speak to them?

In a study from 2016 it was found that dogs can process both what we say and how we say it. Through fMRI scans the study found that different parts of a dog’s brain were activated depending on what was said but also how the words were said – the intonation of the word. The dogs were presented with familiar praises and neutral words all said in either a neutral tone or a praising tone. When the dogs heard a familiar praise, the left hemisphere was activated whereas intonations where processed in auditory sections of the right hemisphere. This means that dogs can distinguish what we say from how we say it.

Watch video here about the study:


Does your dog understand or have they just learned?

But does your dog understand what you are saying or have they simply learned to understand words used often and that provides a positive feedback?

That proves to be a little bit more tricky. We all know Chaser the border collie who learned over a 1000 words for different items. She definitely understood the difference between the words for each toy, she even understood what she had to do with the toy.

Does your dog understand you

But does that mean that our dogs understand everything we say? Maybe, maybe not. What we need to keep in mind is that dogs like Chaser has had extensive training over a profound period of time.

I think what we can say is that our dogs have learned to understand the everyday words that we say often and that brings them something good, like a treat or a pet. They know the phrase “Let’s go for a walk” or “Do you want food?”, because they have learned the meaning behind those words.

Whether or not they understand everything you say to them or whether they have the same understanding of a concept as us, are more difficult questions.

As we have also learned, the beginning of a word is the most significant to a dog and the one they respond to. This is why it is important to keep your cues for your dog short and precise. You might say the phrase “let us go for a walk” but all your dog picks up is the word ‘walk’ cause that is what they have learned to associate with going outside for a walk (more about that here).

The intonation of words matters

What is also interesting in the study above is that they found that dogs can differentiate between the intonation of our words. This means that they can differentiate between what is being said and which tone it is said in. This knowledge should make us even more aware on which tone we use with our dogs. Yelling or scolding our dogs will have a negative effect on our relation. We want our dogs to link our voice as something positive so they will always come to us.

Should I keep speaking to my dog?

YES! Of course we should keep speaking to our dogs!

The more we speak the more words our dogs will learn to associate with different things and the better they will understand us. Speaking to our dogs also helps us humans feel less lonely and it increases our bond in general with our dogs (Read more about the human-dog bond here)

So keep speaking to your dog and think about your intonation when you speak to your dog, it is no secret that they love that high pitched baby voice so if you want to really praise them remember to use a light happy voice.

Finally, as written above, our dogs puts the most significance on the first part of the word so try this little exercise at home:

Instead of saying “sit“, try to say “si” and see if your dog responds.

Try not to use any body language but just see how your dog reacts and if they sit or not.

Let me know in the comments how it goes.

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