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We’ve all heard a story of a whip-smart dog who learned strategic words, like “walk” or “treat.” But do those dogs really understand human language, and if so, what are the limits on their language learning? A burgeoning field of scientific research is beginning to find some answers.

The Average Dog Doesn’t Distinguish the Details of Human Speech

Try telling your dog to “sit” or “sid” and you’ll likely get the same result: a good pup in a nice sitting posture. That’s because, as recently demonstrated in a study from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, dogs don’t access phonetic details when they’re listening to human speech.

Researchers used a groundbreaking non-invasive method to observe dogs’ cognitive responses to three types of word: instruction words they already knew (like sit, stay, or down), nonsense words that sound similar to those known instruction words, and nonsense words that sound nothing like the known instruction words.

They found that when it comes to distinguishing an instruction word from a totally different nonsense word, dogs’ brains process speech very quickly—on a similar timescale to humans, in fact. But when a nonsense word sounds just like an instruction word, they don’t distinguish at all.

Bluetick Coonhound standing in the grass.
© 2017 Mary Swift Photography

This means that dogs aren’t listening to or learning words in quite the same way as humans—or at least, not in the same way as adult humans. This kind of non-detailed phonetic recognition is also the way babies process speech up to the age of about 14 months, and goes some way toward explaining why most dogs can only learn a small handful of words, since a big vocabulary requires precision.

So what does all this mean for you and your pup? Dr. Lilla Magyari, one of the researchers on the project, notes that first and foremost, it means that dogs are listening to your speech. “If some owners are thinking that it doesn’t matter what I say to my dog because the dog is watching the gestures I do or finding out from context what he or she should do, it’s not entirely true. They do listen to human speech,” Dr. Magyari says. It just seems that their attention isn’t on the phonetic details—and yet even that isn’t set in stone. “There are studies that show that after some training, some dogs can differentiate similar-sounding words,” Dr. Magyari continued. “So it doesn’t mean even that they don’t hear these differences. It is just that they probably don’t think that those differences are important.”

In short: keep talking to your dog, and keep using clear commands while training them. They are listening. They just have their own way of processing the information.

Some Dogs Really Are Linguistically Gifted

Then there are the exceptions: dogs who can learn hundreds of vocabulary words. These pups are currently the subjects of another study at Eötvös Loránd University, and recently made headlines after going to head-to-head in a live Genius Dog Challenge, which challenged them to learn up to 12 new words in the space of a week. All six dogs successfully learned between 10 and 12 words in one week.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the words they learned were not command words, like those tested in Dr. Magyari’s study, but names for toys—a category of word that dogs seem to have much more trouble picking up. “We know that dogs can learn commands or cues or sound stimuli or any stimulus for a behavior, which is basically a process of association,” Genius Dog researcher Dr. Claudia Fugazza says. “But there was [no existing research] about learning the names of objects. So we started investigating and we found that, irrespective of the age when you start training, most dogs do not learn the name of objects. We trained a group of dogs very intensively for three months, we included a group of puppies around three months old and a group of adult dogs, and none of them could learn any words.”

Today, we’ve gained insight into how the smartest dogs learn. Chaser, shown here with her toys, learned the names of more than one thousand objects.

Yet the six dogs that participated in the Genius Dog Challenge were able to learn the names of objects with no training. In fact, astonishingly, some dogs could learn the name of a toy after just four repetitions. Perhaps even more fascinatingly, most of the dogs that have this trait seem to be Border Collies.

Dr. Fugazza and her team are now hard at work finding out how and why certain dogs have such advanced linguistic skills. “We suspect that there might be a genetic basis for this talent,” she says, “but for the moment we don’t know. Of course the fact that most of the dogs that have this capacity are Border Collies points to some genetic factors, but we need to run some studies to find out.” Dr. Fugazza adds that the ability could very well come down to a combination of genetic and environmental factors—dogs with a particular gene meeting the right conditions for their vocabularies to soar.

How Can Dog Lovers Help Foster Better Communication Between Humans and Dogs?

So where does this leave the average dog owner or dog lover? Since we now know for sure that every dog really is listening when we talk, there’s every reason to continue lavishing attention on our pups, linguistically and otherwise. And when you train, make sure to use clear command words, to make it as easy as possible for your pup to understand. After all, they’re the ones doing most of the work here: humans have not yet learned any words in Doggish.

How about if you suspect you know a linguistically gifted dog? Dr. Claudia Fugazza and her team are still looking for genius dogs to help further our understanding of dogs’ linguistic abilities. If your pup knows the names of more than 10 objects or toys, you can apply to participate in gifted-dog studies, and bring humankind one step closer to our best friends.

Related article: How to Teach Your Dog to Read
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