How much of what you say does your dog really understand? (And how much of what you don’t even know you are saying does your dog understand?)
The answers “dog experts” will offer for these questions range include:
- Dogs don’t understand any human language
- Dogs can learn simple, one-word commands, but not very many and not if they sound similar to one another
- Dogs understand full sentences; can learn thousands of words, and can even understand grammar and syntax
- Dogs can read you better than any human can read another; they know your thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
A hint for new readers: I tend toward those last two. I truly feel sorry for dogs who live with people who favor those top two bullet points. Those are just silly.
Jana and I had long, deep conversations. But Jana was exceptional. Cali is a much more typical dog. In fact, Cali is the embodiment of every positive stereotype of dogs, especially of golden retrievers. And she, with shamefully little teaching from me, understands me — and other humans — pretty darn well.
She understands the obvious questions, of course: Want to go for a walk / to the park / for a ride? Are you ready for dinner / breakfast? Do you think there might be some eggs left for the dog? OK, the last one might not be so common. But in our house, there is a rule (instituted by Jana and eagerly adopted by Cali, Alberta, Koala, and all visitors) that anyone who makes eggs has to share with all the people in the house, dog people included.
I can also say things to her like, “Why is there a dog in the kitchen?” (She backs up and carefully sits with her paws exactly on the line between kitchen and not-kitchen.) A variation is: Please wait outside the kitchen. (Same response.) The whole dog, please (when the feet are still planted inside the kitchen). She understands — and she’s a dog who is constantly testing boundaries. She even understands what it means when I start counting to three. I don’t even know what it means. Well, I do know that it conveys, “do what I asked — and you ignored — right now.” But I have no idea what happens when I get to three. Jana did. And she must have told Cali, because Cali knows too. Whatever it means must be really serious; they respond. So I’ve never actually gotten to three and had to figure it out.
Cali even knows silly things like, “I need my boots!” Of course she does; that is the magical prelude to a) Cali trading each boot for a cookie, followed by b) a walk to the park. Took her about 10 seconds to learn that one, including actually bringing the boots!
Cali’s ability to understand my communication, intentional or not, far exceeds my ability to understand hers. She is an astute reader of my body language — and my mind. She knows when I am about to stop working and get up from the computer. She knows when I say, “Let’s go for a walk,” but I mean, “Let’s go for a walk after I go to the bathroom, eat a cracker, put on my shoes, hunt for a lost glove, answer a phone call, and spend several minutes deciding which shoes and which jacket to wear.” (She waits patiently until shoes and coat are actually on before deigning to reply, by getting excited.)
According to Deni, Cali even knows when I am on my way home, even when I am not following any regular schedule. I can’t verify that, of course, but I have been interested in that possibility since reading Rupert Sheldrake’s work on “return anticipating” dogs several years ago.
It’s about relationship. Cali has been studying me since she moved in — exactly four years ago. I talk to her a lot, and we spend a lot of time together. Your dog probably has similar “magical” abilities.
Chaser, the dog who knows more than a thousand words and has demonstrated her understanding of syntax and grammar, got many, many hours of formal education. Chaser learned language in private tutorials. I definitely think that all dogs who live with people should get some formal education — a puppy class or lessons on some basic manners like sitting nicely to greet people and walking politely with humans.
But even with only basic education, your dog will learn an awful lot of language. And she’ll learn to read your communication. Understanding that changed the way I regarded dogs; it has deepened my respect and affection for them.
So go on, talk to your dog. No need to feel silly. She’ll probably surprise you with how much she already understands, and she’ll never get tired of the attention.