Language is complicated. Whether it’s communicating abroad, struggling to learn French or those weekly spelling tests in school, we’ve all faced language misunderstandings and difficulties. Now imagine trying to communicate with a completely different species with entirely different vocal cords and sounds. This is the challenge humans and dogs face when we interact! But some dogs appear to understand more human language than others. How much language do dogs really understand?
Table of contents
- Let’s Meet Bunny
- How Do Dogs Communicate with Each Other?
- Human-Dog Verbal Communication
- Human-Dog Non-Verbal Communication
- So What Was Bunny Doing?
- How Much Language Do Dogs Understand?
- Further Reading
- You might also be interested in:
Let’s Meet Bunny
This article has been inspired by a viral story about Bunny; a ‘sheepadoodle’ (Old English sheepdog cross poodle) who has learnt to communicate via AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices. Basically, Bunny has an array of buttons that, when pressed, each say a human word, such as ‘outside’. In the viral videos on Bunny’s owner’s TikTok, you can see Bunny carefully press individual buttons to spell out ‘later outside’ or ‘more scritches now’. While the English isn’t exactly Shakespeare, the meaning is pretty clear! So has Bunny mastered human language and constructing sentences? Without a doubt, Bunny is a smart dog, but there’s probably more to this story than meets the eye.
How Do Dogs Communicate with Each Other?
We all know that dogs can be pretty noisy. They bark, howl, yelp, whimper, growl and grumble. Each of these noises, and variations in between, carries a different meaning that dogs use to express their feelings and communicate with other dogs. Many of these are recognisable to humans. For example, an angry dog will bark loudly and growl, while a whimper may indicate pain. Others can be less clear, and you may be questioning why your dog is barking at 2am for seemingly no reason! Barking and howling in particular are used for long-distance communication between dogs, similar to wolves that howl to each other across the miles.
However, dogs are special in that their language is far more than just auditory
One aspect of this is body language. By subtly moving different parts of their body, dogs convey a wide range of emotions that other dogs can read. For example, ears: ears upright indicate alertness; ears back could indicate aggression; ears floppy indicates calmness; pulled in tight could mean fear. The tail is also very important: a high up tail indicates confidence; wagging is, of course, happiness; a tail tucked between the legs shows fear; a tail straight out with fur erect shows aggression and dominance.
Their non-verbal communication can get even more subtle. Such as the direction of a tail wag indicating how comfortable a dog feels! Body position plays a part too. When a dog cocks its head sideways, it is curious. A head down when being approached indicates submission, while being upright indicates alertness. A body low to the ground again indicates submission, while an upright dog is more confident or dominant.
It gets far far more complicated than this, but you are starting to get the picture of how dogs communicate. As an aside, this is why non-medical ear cropping and tail docking is considered very cruel in dogs, as it damages communication considerably.
But perhaps the most impressive method of dog communication is via smell
A dog’s nose is incredibly powerful, detecting smell particles even in tiny quantities. It makes sense for dogs to utilise this powerful organ for communication. Dogs release pheromones, specific smells, that convey emotion or even information about themselves. Different pheromones are released when a dog is happy or sad, angry or content, and other dogs can detect these. They can even determine how old a dog is, if they are in season or pregnant. So much information can be conveyed without even hearing or seeing another dog. Dogs leave pheromones in their urine, as well as their faeces (thanks to their anal glands). This is why dogs like to leave little urine sprays on vertical surfaces. It is their way of leaving a message for the next dog, like a little biography of who they are and how they’re feeling that day. Pheromones are also why dogs like to smell each other when saying hello, especially each other’s rear ends!
So it is pretty clear that dog language is very powerful and, in some ways, a lot more sophisticated than human language. Between each other, dogs can understand a huge amount of language. So how does this translate to human to dog communication?
Human-Dog Verbal Communication
You probably already know dogs can understand humans to some degree. They learn commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘come’ and ‘walkies’ quite easily. We’ve actually discussed this a little in our recent article about dog intelligence, featuring Chaser the Collie who learned over 1000 words in her lifetime, even grouped into sentences! She could even learn the name for an object via a process of elimination, where if there were three objects and she knew the names of two of them, she could correctly understand that a new word referred to the third object. Of course, not every dog is as smart as Chaser (read our article to find out where your dog might rank), but is this not evidence that dogs understand language?
Unfortunately, it might not be so simple: dogs learn via association and repetition
By repeatedly saying ‘sit’ and pushing down on their bottom to make them sit, and rewarding them afterwards, a dog will associate the sound of ‘sit’ with receiving a reward if they perform the action of sitting. This does not mean they understand the word ‘sit’ refers to the action. Furthermore, dogs struggle to distinguish between actual commands and nonsense words that sound similar to the command, whereas adult humans can. Dogs learning commands is a form of conditioning that can be seen in many less intelligent species, where reacting to a specific sound is a reflex action, rather than explicit intelligence.
Dogs can understand our tones of voice to some degree, even sometimes superseding the language they ‘know’
Saying ‘walkies’ in an upbeat way will likely elicit excitement, while shouting it will cause fear, despite the word being the same. This could indicate that dogs use tone and posture (more on this later) more to understand humans than actual sounds of words. However, one study investigated how dogs’ brains work when they hear humans speak. They discovered that they process language in a similar way to humans, using the left side of the brain to process a word’s meaning and the right side to interpret the tone of the word, both being used at the same time – this shows that both the word and intonation play some role.
So dogs can learn our language, and some can learn hundreds or even thousands of words and sounds
And by using memories of association, they can react in a way that appears to be understanding. But how much human language dogs actually understand is still unclear, and likely to be less than we think – a reflex action (sitting down) to a stimulus (the word ‘sit’) is not true understanding, however impressive.
Human-Dog Non-Verbal Communication
With non-verbal communication being so important for communication between dogs, you may be curious to know how important it is for human to dog communication. It is important in human communication of course – consider shouting “hey!” to someone while smiling and waving, versus shouting “hey!” while scowling and running over to them. The language is the same but the meaning is clearly very different. Our posture, facial expressions, actions and context change the meaning of sentences wildly. As we have already mentioned, these things are critical for dog communication, so naturally are important in how dogs communicate with humans as well.
Many of the ways dog’s use body language and posture to communicate can be utilised by humans as well. Standing over a dog will often cause either fear or aggression in certain dogs. Conversely, a nervous dog may be more easily approached by getting low down to their level to show you are not a threat. We, as vets, use this all the time in how we approach dogs.
Human to dog communication has in some ways become more advanced than dog to dog communication. Dogs can learn to react to a human’s eye movements and work out where we are looking. They can also understand that pointing at something refers to that object. These skills are not present in other intelligent animals like chimpanzees. This is because we think dogs and humans have ‘co-evolved’ becoming more understanding of each other over 10,000+ years of domestication. Dogs have evolved to understand humans better, and vice versa. We might not be able to smell each other to communicate, but human-dog communication is very sophisticated.
So What Was Bunny Doing?
Let’s put this all together and relate back to Bunny. Bunny’s owner explained that she did not pick up her skills spontaneously. Instead, the owner would press the button that said ‘outside’ while saying the word aloud and letting Bunny go outside. With repetition, Bunny learnt that this button means she could go outside.
This means Bunny has made an associative memory with the sound of a particular button, learning that it means she can go outside. Some of her more complex sentences will be due to similar associations, learning that pressing these buttons in sequence equals a particular outcome. This does not necessarily imply she understands our language or can make up her own sentences using words she already ‘knows’. Again, it is a reflex action using her associative memories.
Certainly Bunny is a very clever dog, and being able to remember multiple sequences of buttons and what they correspond to is impressive, but it is unlikely to indicate true understanding of language.
How Much Language Do Dogs Understand?
So in summary, how much language do dogs understand? It really depends what you are referring to.
Between each other, dogs’ language is incredibly complex, relying on sound, body position and posture, and pheromones. Undoubtedly they understand a great deal using this language. With humans, dogs can use our body language and tone to understand a lot, knowing if a person is friendly or not regardless of the words spoken. As for the spoken language, this is a little less clear – certainly, many dogs can remember the associations of a lot of words, even being able to represent this with actions, like Bunny and her buttons. But true understanding of the deeper meaning of words and sentences in multiple contexts is likely to still be beyond dogs.
- How to teach dog to talk with buttons according to one owner
- Eavesdropping Dogs…Do Dogs Understand Our Conversations? | VCA Animal Hospital
- How do dogs communicate with each other? | Behaviour | Dogs Trust
- Dog communication