We talk to our dogs all the time, and there are times when they clearly understand the words we are saying. “Sit,” leads to a quick rump on the floor; “Let’s go for a ride,” causes them to run for the door; “Get your ball,” sends them scampering across the yard.
But do you ever wonder how much of what we say our dogs really understand? Are they taking in the meaning of our words or sitting with head cocked to one side because they love us and know we often deliver yummy treats after these command words?
Talking to dogs
Some people say it’s not so much what we say to our dogs as how we say it that they are responding to. They believe that our dogs are watching us for behavior clues and responding to our tone of voice. If we offer a ride in a happy tone of voice and jingle our car keys, the dog has put together their learned behavior and will run to the door. Similarly, a sharp ‘down’ command might lead to a conditioned response rather than true understanding of the word.
Tone of voice and body language certainly seem to play an important role in communicating with our dogs. The cautionary tale of the ‘Clever Hans effect’ has colored a lot of research into dogs’ language abilities. In the early 1900s, a German horse named Hans was thought to be listening to his trainer and responding to questions or doing math calculations by tapping his hoof. However, it was ultimately found that Hans was responding to tiny verbal or physical clues from his questioner in order to get the right answer.
More recently, however, scientists have determined that along with watching us for clues, dogs are also listening to us for words that they know. There is evidence that they learn certain words in conjunction with outcomes associated with our tone of voice or gestures. Using MRI technology, a neuroeconomics professor at Emory University found that the language receptor parts of the dog brain activate in a similar fashion to human brains when words are introduced. Their limited linguistic capacity means they take in language quickly but don’t capture nuance. For example, a dog will respond to ‘sit’ in the same way as they will to ‘sid’. This is similar to the way young children initially acquire language, and it seems most dogs have the linguistic capacity of a 16–18-month-old baby.
Even though we all know our own dog is the most special, there are certain dogs who show an incredible facility for learning language. While it is rare, there have been notable dogs who have learned hundreds of object words in addition to the command words most dogs know.
With almost 7 million followers on TikTok and Instagram, Bunny the sheepadoodle is clearly a phenomenon. Bunny’s pet parent, Alexis Devine, was determined to see how well Bunny could communicate with her. After seeing speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger teach her dog Stella to use an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) board, commonly used to aid nonverbal humans, Devine began to train Bunny using word buttons of her own.
From the time she was a small puppy, Bunny was trained to push ‘outside’ when she needed to go out. Devine kept introducing more buttons, and soon Bunny was creating short phrases. After 15 months, Bunny was in command of a word mat that had over 70 buttons. She is well documented creating phrases such as ‘tug, mom, now’ and ‘ouch, stranger, paw’ in what seem to be sentences for Devine.
In order to put a more scientific lens on Bunny’s behavior and to see if these results can be replicated among a large number of other dogs, Federico Rossano of UC San Diego started a project called They Can Talk in order to determine if people are seeing clever dogs or are falling for a ‘Clever Hans’ and putting their own confirmation biases to work. The project aims to use scientific research methods of large sample size in a double-blind study to eliminate the risk that humans are influencing the dog behaviors.
After hearing about a German Border Collie named Rico who knew the names of 200 objects he had learned by playing with his owner, former psychology professor Dr. John Pilley set about intensively training his Border Collie, Chaser. They worked together for up to five hours each day, and Chaser learned more than 1,000 words. Pilley would demonstrate Chaser’s understanding by teaching her the name of an object, such as a stuffed octopus named Inky, hiding it in another room, and then telling Chaser to go find Inky. To ensure that she wasn’t just responding to a command to retrieve the toy, Dr. Pilley taught her to retrieve it, touch it with her nose, or touch it with her paw. The remarkable bond between Chaser and Dr. Pilley was well-documented in books and videos before they each passed away.
The recognition of Chaser’s intelligence led animal behaviorists at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest to create the Family Dog Project in an attempt to gather a large enough sample population for their research on dogs’ cognitive abilities to be scientifically valid. In order to discover how many words certain dogs can learn, the scientists recruited 34 dogs of a variety of breeds and had their owners work for three months to teach them the names of two new objects. Those who could identify the correct object were given a treat and another object to learn. Out of the 34 dogs involved in the study, only one, a border collie named Olivia, was able to identify one object correctly. She went on to learn 21 new words in two months.
Genius dog challenge
In 2020, these researchers started the Genius Dog Challenge. It took them two and a half years to identify six dogs from around the world who excelled in language learning. The dogs were then challenged in two stages. They first had a week to learn the names of six new toys, and then they had another week to learn the names of 12 more toys. Paired up in head-to-head competition, a researcher gave them the name of a toy to bring back from another room in the house. They were being tested on their acquisition of new words and the longevity of their memory. The dogs who were most successful went on in the competition until the eventual ‘champion’ was crowned.
While the dogs who are gifted word learners are almost exclusively from working breeds, and among those breeds border collies are by far the most represented, there have been instances of dogs from other breeds showing an aptitude for language acquisition. The researchers have discovered that it is very rare for a dog to be able to learn so many new words so quickly, and even among border collies, these ‘genius dogs’ are real outliers. The animal scientists believe it is a combination of gene pool and environment that contribute to these linguistic geniuses.
Dr. Pilley believed that any dog could adopt a large vocabulary, and he insisted that it was the continuous repetition and sense of play during their training sessions that made Chaser so successful.
Bottom line on dogs and language
Who knows, the next genius dog might be sitting on a dog bed in your house right now. We can all agree, however, that our dogs communicate with us in many different ways all day long. Even if we can’t get them to use our language, we know we can be good students and become fluent in theirs.