HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Many dog owners probably wish they could have a real conversation with their furry friends. While it may seem strange chatting it up with your pet, a new study finds you should try it — because dogs actually understand around 100 words!
Researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada discovered that the average dog appears to know around 89 words and phrases. However, highly intelligent dogs respond to over 200 words that their owners say.
“We aimed to develop a comprehensive owner-reported inventory of words to which owners believe their dogs respond differentially and consistently,” researchers Catherine Reeve and Sophie Jacques write in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
The team surveyed 165 dog owners who are the pet parents of several different breeds. The owners reported on the different words and phrases their pets appear to understand, as well as the breed, age, sex, and training background of their furry companions.
Hey! That’s my name!
When it comes to counting which words dogs actually have in their “vocabulary,” the study authors only counted words or phrases which made each dog look up, whine, run, wag their tail, or perform a specific action related to that word — like sitting.
The study finds that common commands are among the most likely words a dog will know. These include “sit,” “come,” “down,” “stay,” “wait,” “no,” “OK,” and “leave it.” However, researchers note that dogs most frequently respond to their own names.
Several of the dogs in the study could also understand tasty words like “treat,” “breakfast,” and “dinner,” and playful words like “ball” and “squirrel.”
Some dog breeds are super smart
While the average number of words a dog knows sits at 89, the study found that the range for some dogs can be much higher or much lower. The least responsive dogs only reacted to 15 words, while the most responsive pups had a vocabulary of 215 words!
The Canadian team adds that the most responsive dog breeds include the Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, German Shepherd, Bichon Frise, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Chihuahua. Conversely, popular breeds like Beagle and Boxer actually finished among the dogs with the smallest vocabularies.
“The current study takes an important first step towards developing an instrument that makes it possible to identify which words might most likely be responded to by dogs. Although research on dogs’ responses to words exists, much of it has been limited in scope (e.g., teaching a handful of commands or object words) or sample size (e.g., training a single dog). The current study is consistent with existing research suggesting that dogs may be particularly adept at responding to commands rather than object words,” the researchers write.
Do dogs ‘really’ know what you’re saying?
While the researchers say the typical dog shows they “know” around 100 words, they caution that responding to a word doesn’t necessarily mean they truly understand its meaning. Over thousands of years of evolution and domestication, it’s possible dogs simply know to associate certain human sounds with specific events that follow those words.
For example, hearing the sound of the word “sit” often leads to a reward — so the pup knows to obey and receive their treat. Scientists add that dogs can also learn to associate specific sounds with other actions after hearing and seeing these pairings over and over again.
“With additional research, our tool could become an efficient, effective, and economical research instrument for mapping out some of their competences and perhaps help predict early the potential of individual dogs for various professions,” the team concludes.