How dogs have come to understand the nuances of human language is incredibly impressive for an animal that does not utter words on its own.
Just a fraction of a second after we started saying a word – like “walk” or “treat” – dogs can predict and react to what we’re trying to say. To some extent, they can even understand our tone of voice.
While a dog’s vocabulary isn’t as vast as ours, a new study suggests that the average dog can consistently respond to 89 words or phrases. Almost half of them are commands, like “sit” or “stay”, but some general words, like “wait”, and nouns, like “treat”, are also understood.
The most knowledgeable dogs of the lot actually answered over 200 specific words, which is roughly equivalent to the vocabulary of a two-year-old human child.
Obviously, a dog doesn’t utter these words like a toddler would, but dogs seem to respond to certain words in a specific and consistent manner, suggesting they have some level of language comprehension.
The results are based on an established vocabulary checklist used by parents to assess the vocabulary of a human infant. In this case, however, it was granted to 165 dog owners, including dogs of different types of breeds, ages, and professions.
While breed type and working status (e.g., a police dog) seemed to impact a dog’s vocabulary size, their age and the qualities of their owner didn’t seem to influence the list.
“Thus”, the authors write, “According to owner reports, dogs appear to vary widely not only in the number but also in the type of words they are supposed to respond to.”
Studies in the past have shown how dogs can learn to respond to an incredible number of human words if they undergo intense training. In 2004, for example, researchers reported a border collie named Rico who had learned to collect more than 200 objects, including “plush toys” and “balls”, just hearing their names.
In 2011, after three years of training, another border collie had acquired a toy vocabulary of over 1,000 words. Some particularly intelligent dogs can even learn new words. after hearing them only a handful of times.
But what about your average housekeeping dog?
Using an online survey, the authors of the present study asked dog owners to report how their pets reacted to 172 words and phrases.
There is always a chance with this type of research that owners overestimate their pet’s understanding. But previous research on this specific vocabulary test in infants has shown that parents understand their child better than a trained observer, so the same may be true of their pets.
Additionally, by giving dog owners a fixed list of words to use, this method ensures that a pet owner does not forget to test certain words, as might have happened in previous studies on canine vocabulary which resulted in an average dog lexicon about three times the size.
Dog owners in the current survey were asked to rate their dog’s response to certain words and phrases on a scale of 0 to five.
A score of 0 points means their dog has never responded specifically or consistently to a word or phrase. While a score of five points meant the dog did it often, even when the words were spoken in different places, in different tones, and by different people.
In total, there were ten words or phrases specifically recognized by over 90 percent of all dogs. These common words and phrases included the dog’s name, as well as “sit”, “come on”, “good girl / boy”, “down”, “stay”, “wait”, “no”, “ok” and ” ” leave him’.
In contrast, only a few rare dogs could respond coherently and specifically to phrases and words such as “wipe your feet”, “whisper”, “loud”, “antler”, as well as names for the walker. dogs, dog daycare, groomer, or kennel.
When using the established vocabulary list, pet owners also had the option of adding more words and phrases. The owners who added the most commands, nouns, or verbs tended to have professionally trained dogs, or dogs they believed could learn quickly.
Professional dogs, such as those trained for the military, police, or search and rescue, had 1.5 times the vocabulary of dogs without this professional training.
The study authors did not have enough dogs of each breed to determine whether some of them are better at learning words than others, but more general “breed types” such as sheepdogs. , toy companions, scent hounds and terriers, have shown significant variation in their ability to learn words.
Owners of sheepdogs and companion dogs, for example, tended to believe their dogs answered more words than owners of terriers, hunting dogs, companion dogs, and other purebred dogs. and mixed races.
These are interesting findings, but due to the “exploratory character“From this research, the authors say firm conclusions about the ability of certain types of dogs to respond to human language are premature.
Given how subjective it can be to interpret dog behavior and understanding, the results of this study have limitations.
There is always a chance that the investigating dogs will incorporate human gestures and other contextual information into their understanding of certain words. Additionally, since many of these dogs have received basic obedience training, it is possible that a completely untrained dog will have a vocabulary of less than 89 words.
Still, the research is a good first step, and it highlights a potential way for scientists to measure dogs’ language responses in the future.
With larger sample sizes, this tool could one day allow us to identify which words are most likely to be answered by which dogs.
“With additional research, our tool could become an effective, efficient and economical research tool for mapping some of their skills and perhaps helping to predict each dog’s potential for various occupations early on,” the authors explain. conclude.
The study was published in Applied Sciences of Animal Behavior.