Science Questions

How much do dogs understand when humans talk to them?

Sat, 11th Aug 2012

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Anthea Sam asked:

Hi Chris,


I listen to you on 702 every chance I get, but never get a chance to ask you a question.


How much do dogs understand when humans talk to them? Other than basic commands, can they understand when we talk to them about going on holiday and they have to stay elsewhere... or that they are going to the vet for a procedure, and they will be fetched later when on their way to recovery... How many words can they retain in their memory? And is that dependent on breed?


Looking forward to hearing you on friday on Redi's show again.



Anthea Sam


Victoria -   Well, it seems that there's actually been a number put on the number of words that a dog can understand, a bit like the human lexicon I guess, and thatís approximately 200.  That was a dog called Rico which sadly passed away in 2008.  But Rico was studied at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and they do a lot of work on this stuff, understanding how dogs have adapted to human culture and language.  But that seems to be the maximum and it does really vary according to breed.  Rico was a border collie and thatís a working dog thatís been bred and trained for its ability to be able to understand and work with a man, to run sheep and respond to those commands.  So thatís something thatís been bred into that line, but when you have breeds that are maybe bred for their appearance, they might be suffering a little bit on the intellect.

Chris -   Certainly, my mum had a dog.  Unfortunately, he has now died as well, but he had an exceptional vocabulary and the other thing that they were saying dogs seem to be able to do is Ė in the experiments with Rico Ė they would have him in a room and say, ďGot and get a toy of type X from the room next doorĒ and then not include that toy in the line-up of toys that he did know the name for and he would assume that because he didnít know what that toy was named and he had been told to go and get things but he didnít have the name for, that must be the one, and thatís the same sort of learning process as the 3-year-old child shows.  Itís quite extraordinary that they're able to do this, but then on the other hand, given that they are mammals and so, we have common ancestors, is it so surprising?

Victoria -   It is extraordinary.  I think it does show a level of adaptation and how quickly itís been bred into dogs Ė into their breeding lines - that they can cope with this sort of communication with humans.  The other thing that theyíve shown in these kinds of tests is that there seems to be a real connection between the dog and the owner.  So, the specific human that the dog's associated with that they're more likely to understand fully the commands and even respond to that facial expressions Ė the dogís owner and they recognise that person.


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I am doubtful that a dog understands everything you say. 

Here are some notes about a dog named "Chaser" that has learned the names about 1000 toys.

I'm doubtful that if you tell a dog...  "Let's go to Portland"....  if not real familiar with neighboring towns, the dog might know the "going", but not really know where.  But, perhaps they would learn words like "Let's go to the VET".

What dogs are very good at is reading human emotions.  Certainly they can tell if you are angry, sad, happy, excited, etc.  Perhaps they are better at following intonation in language than following the language itself. CliffordK, Fri, 3rd Aug 2012

There were lots of dogs in our household when I was a lad. They were all working dogs and quite bright, but one in particular stood out. At the time I was doing AI research and when a tiny puppy turned up I tried out all sorts of notions I had about how abstract concepts might be acquired. I am in no doubt that he had a vocab in the hundreds of words, as well as a facility for things mechanical, such as gate latches, screw top bottles and tear open packages (eg muesli bars). Once I issued a long rambling request in a conversational tone of voice (mocking my own high opinion of the dog's intelligence) and he immediately executed the exact request. It was astonishing, almost eerie. Peter Wone, Wed, 6th Mar 2013

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