Dogs are smart, sensitive and intuitive creatures. While they might not be able to speak human languages, it’s pretty clear that they can understand us and communicate with us on various levels. It’s not necessarily words themselves that they comprehend, but rather the context that comes along with them – hence conditional training and the use of positive reinforcement. With that in mind, we would like to share with you our tips for ensuring that your dog knows what you’re talking about, or rather, how to teach them to understand what you’re saying.
Humans/kids learn words in a very straightforward and obvious way. For example, a parent may present their child with an object and simple state the word assigned to it. When it comes to small sentences and phrases, the best way is to simply repeat them until they become habitually understood. Language learning is a process for humans, just as it’s a process for dogs.
While our dogs are definitely intelligent beings, their brains work in different ways to ours which means that they learn in different ways too. According to a recent study conducted in Budapest by Peter Pongracz, dogs’ understanding of our intonations and speech is actually a lot deeper than we may have initially thought. As part of the study, 37 dog owners gave a list of 430 words or phrases (each provided around 30 individual phrases) that they believed their dogs knew well enough to respond to correctly.
Like humans, dogs are able to learn and remember the names associated with different objects, with a separate study showing that the capacity could be as high as 200 words, in particularly smart breeds of dogs. If you’re interested in finding out which dogs are considered the smartest on the planet, then check out our article on it here:
It might be hard to believe that dogs can in fact potentially understand up to 200 words, when it’s difficult to get them to focus on just a couple. This tension and frustration between owners and their pets is an ongoing cause for concern, especially if your dog is often cared for by pet sitters or dog carers and has trouble responding to commands. If your dog has trouble understanding you, then it’s often the case that they find it even more tricky to know what someone else is on about.
Each dog is an individual who will embody a marginally different style of learning, and there are of course professionals available to assist in this process, but if you want to try out a few tips and tricks with your dog at home then our ideas here should be a good start. Basically, it’s about making a small change in the way you actually speak to or address your dog. Your change in tone/style will in turn result in a change of reaction from your dog. Sometimes this behavioural change needs an extensive period of time but sometimes it can be more or less instant.
So here is the big reveal: when speaking to your dog, what you’re actually saying is not necessarily the most important thing. It’s actually more about where you’re standing when you say it. It might be a little bit hard to understand at first, but the reasons for this are actually quite simple.
In order to communicate successfully with dogs, we first need to understand how they communicate with each other. If you think about it, you never really see two dogs facing each other directly and barking – face-to-face just isn’t their style. They actually only do this when they’re being aggressive toward one another. So what kind of message does is it sending when we speak to them this way?
The better option is less direct but potentially just as effective as teaching a child a new word. What you need to do is not only say but show the dog what you’d like them to do, or what you’re trying to get them to recognise. So, when teaching your dog a word associated with an object, point at it and continually repeat the word. You need to choose one distinct word for each object, action or direction (sit, stay etc.) that you’d like them to learn, and then passively teach them through showing rather than just yelling (or barking) it at them. When they get something right, you can of course always reinforce the success with a treat.
What do you think of this method? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
Tiahn Wetzler is a journalist, writer, editor and animal lover. Follow her on Instagram @tiahnwetzler