Thursday, August 8, 2013

Do Dogs Understand Human Speech?

By Langley Cornwell

Most dog people believe that their pets can understand them; some say their pets are in tune with their moods and emotions, and some even go so far as to say that their pets understand their actual words.

Nonetheless, scientists have yet to conclusively determine how much human speech dogs can truly understand. If you have a dog, you know they are able to link sounds with actions (let’s go for a walk, get in the car, lay down, shake, bow, etc.) but they struggle with concepts. For example, if you say, “Go get a toy” the dog will do just that. But if you have a ball and a rope side by side and you say, “Go get the rope” the dog may have a hard time determining which toy you are asking for.

There are exceptions to this. In fact, my friend’s yellow lab has 5 Frisbees, each a different color. If you tell her to get the pink one, she does. Likewise, if you ask her to bring you the red one, she does. Clearly, my friend’s dog displays a high level of cognition. And all of this is without any training!

Research confirms that dogs can functionally understand and use concepts like larger and different with a good bit of training with high value rewards like Canidae Pure Heaven treats, but my friend’s dog simply has this ability. Most dogs can label objects but have problems with differences like color or size (bring me the red Frisbee, bring me the big ball).

A well-known experiment conducted by German researchers confirmed that a Border Collie named Rico had a vocabulary of over 200 words. The researchers started by validating Rico’s vocabulary in a controlled setting. To do this, they collected 10 items Rico was familiar with. They had Rico’s owner issue a verbal command for the dog to fetch a specific item from another room. Rico performed this task perfectly. Next, the researchers wanted to take the experiment a step further so they placed another item –  one that was unfamiliar to Rico – among the familiar items. The owner requested the new item by name, even though Rico didn’t know the name of the item, and Rico brought the new item back to his owner.

Researchers performed this test multiple times with different new items. Remarkably, Rico brought back the correct item 70 percent of the time. This experiment illustrated that the dog not only understood human speech but also knew how to use the process of elimination.

Stanley Coren, a psychologist who is known for his extensive research on the subject of dog intelligence, believes that the average trained dog knows around 160 words. According to the Discovery’s Animal Planet, Coren believes that some dogs even show a vocabulary as vast as a human toddler's.

Have you ever watched any YouTube videos of a dog called Skidboot? It’s hard to tell if this dog is just really well trained or if he can actually understand human speech. Either way, be careful. I lost more time today than I care to admit; once I started watching this dog, I couldn’t get enough.

What about you? Do you think your dog understands your words?

Top photo by Annheathen
Middle photo by Pippalou
Bottom photo courtesy of David Hartwig

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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