My grandmother would always swear to me that her dog Cooper could understand every word she said. Cooper could tell when my grandmother was upset, happy, or frustrated and would “respond” appropriately when my grandmother talked to him.
We’ve often wondered whether animals could understand us, but I feel like dogs have been a particular subject of wonder. Since we hold them in high regard as companions, it makes sense to have the desire for them to understand us the way a human companion would.
So, do dogs understand us?
Yes, but not in the way you think.
There are a couple of definitions of “understand” that we have to keep in mind.
Above is a screenshot of the Dictionary.com definition of “Understand.” I would argue that when we say dogs understand us, they do a mix of definition 2 and definition 3.
When you tell your dog to “sit,” you have assigned meaning (the action of sitting) to the word (“sit”). Your dog, through consistent training, then associates the word “sit” with the action of sitting.
So, it sounds so far like your dog can understand what you’re saying. Not quite. While yes, they can play basic word association, they don’t understand full sentences the way you may want them to. Stringing together gibberish and ending with the word “sit” or “walk” should elicit the same response and action as if you just said “sit” or “walk” by itself.
This isn’t to say that dogs are not perceptive. Many dogs can tell from body language and tone of your voice what you’re feeling. If you’ve ever gotten angry and yelled at your dog, you may have noticed that they back up, cower, and act upset or remorseful.
Though body language may signal otherwise, they have no idea what you’re upset about. Instead, they are reacting to your tone and body language. They know you’re angry and upset, but they have no basis of understanding for the words you’re saying.
This is why it’s so important to be aware of the tone you use when speaking to your dog. Light, higher-pitched tones are happy and positive, perfect for praising behavior. Lower, stern tones denote seriousness, which works for scolding.
Does all this mean grandma should stop talking to her dog? Not at all. For many, including myself, conversing with our dogs is a wonderful release and makes us feel less lonely. Even though they may not understand, you can bet that they care.
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