Written by: Cally Worden
It’s a fascinating idea isn’t it? That your pooch really understands when you are talking to him. There you are, wittering away to your canine counsellor and really feeling as though they are listening. He senses you are sad and places a gentle paw on your knee, gazing adoringly at you with big brown eyes – it’s like he really ‘gets’ you … Well I hate to burst your bubble, but dogs brains simply don’t work that way. Dogs are smart, no doubt about it, but the complexity of human verbal expression is way, way beyond canine cognisance. So why do they seem to respond so well when we use verbal commands?
Language and Word Capacity
Psychologist Stanley Coren is a dog lover; he has spent many years researching dogs’ capacity for comprehension and learning. He believes that the average dog can, with the right training, learn up to around 160 different words. The idea that animals can use ‘language’ to communicate first reared its head in the 1970s, chimpanzees were successfully trained to read and use sign language. In other words, the use of language as a means of communication in one form or another is not unique to humans.
Rico the Border Collie
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute worked extensively with a Border Collie named Rico, whose owner had successfully trained him to understand more than 200 words. Testing his abilities, they found that Rico could indeed be instructed to find various objects he knew by name, he would also use a process of elimination to identify a new object among familiar ones. Impressive stuff, but all it proves is that a dog can be trained to link a certain sound (word) with an object or action. To a dog, a ball is a sphere. To a human, a ball is a sphere that immediately conjures up a mental map of associations far beyond the object.
Where the whole ‘dogs understand-language’ argument begins to falter is in respect of abstract concepts. As humans, we can process ideas around concepts such as ‘beliefs’, ‘religion’, ‘love’ and so on. These are ideas that bear no specific relation to an object or action; this makes them incomprehensible to dogs.
Why do they Seem to Understand us so well?
If dogs are limited in their capacity for understanding language, why do they appear to have a knack for understanding us at a general level? Some dogs seem to be able to tell when we’re feeling happy or sad, for example. Various studies on this issue suggest this is because dogs are very adept at interpreting our tone of voice and body language. So, they pick up on our non-verbal cues, like gestures, they use these to predict the kinds of behaviours that will elicit the best response from us at that moment – most dogs simply crave attention, love and food, they will adopt their behaviours in order to acquire these. That’s not to say they are not loyal – they are and have a desire to make us happy too. Because when we are happy, we engage well with our pets. We will probably never know if this is intentional on their part or not.
On a final note, other studies have shown that some dogs have an innate ability to detect when we are unwell, even before we know it ourselves. This may have something to do with their sense of smell.
Whatever their language abilities, it’s a fact that our dogs love to be in our company. We are their pack, even if we can’t always understand each other all that well. Dogs are one of the most loving pets you can welcome into your home. If you’re not sure how to tell them how important they are to your family, just show them with a smile and a stroke. They will thank you for it, probably silently!