How Much Does a Dog Understand?

Over twenty years ago I came across this Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. Although I often joke in this vein that our dog, Rocket Boy, only understands his name and the word Chew-eez, the truth is that dogs understand far more than that.

Last week we were at the hospital late one night to witness the birth of our great niece. When we had left the house, we’d told our five dogs that we’d only be gone a few hours and that they should watch the house and be good. We typically talk to our dogs this way during the normal course of a day, and never leave the house without telling one of them that they are “in charge”. When we mentioned telling the dogs we’d be home soon, our nephew, the baby’s father, had a fit.

“Stop it. Just stop it.” He said. “They’re not kids! Dogs do not understand.”

Wow, is he ever wrong.

It’s not the first time that our nephew has gotten agitated whenever we talk about our dogs understanding what we are saying. Truthfully, if he keeps it up he’ll be seeing less and less of us – because we won’t tolerate being treated like “crazy old ladies” because we talk to our dogs; an activity that he thinks is a waste of time.

Stanley Coren, author and former professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, writes about Dog-Human communication in his book How to Speak Dog.  Coren states that the average dog knows between 200 and 300 words. That puts a dog’s language comprehension on par with a 2-1/2 – 3 yr. old child.  An extra intelligent dog may even know more words than that, and one dog trainer has reported that his dog knows as many as 350 words.

An article in WIRED [Dogs Understand Human Language, 6/10/04]   Suggests that a dog’s ability to understand language seem to follow a process called “fast mapping,” as seen when young children start to learn to speak and understand language.

Fast-mapping allows a child to form quick and rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word the first time they hear or see it. Studies strongly support the idea that a seemingly complex human linguistic skill previously described only in human children may be determined by simpler cognitive building blocks that are also present in dogs.

I have seen for myself what some people seem to need an expert to verify. I know that when I tell our dog, Waldo, that Sue is coming over and that she doesn’t like dogs and he mustn’t jump on her, that he understands me. His self-restraint is visibly evident when he greets her. He keeps all four feet on the ground, even though his excitement threatens to make him explode. She is the only person he greets in this fashion.

I know that when my neighbor tells his dog that I will be dogsitting the day before they leave for vacation, that she will greet me at the door with a wagging tail. The times he has forgotten to tell her, she has greeted me with growls.

I know that when I tell our dog, Taco, that I love her, she closes her eyes halfway and wags her tail to let me know that she knows what I am saying, and by her body language she is saying it back to me.

I don’t understand how anybody who has spent any time with a dog can think any differently.

I wonder if our nephew will talk to his baby during the first year of her life – or if somebody will tell him that he is wasting his time, because the baby doesn’t understand as much as his dog does.


About yelodoggie

C.A.Wulff is an author, artist and animal advocate. She has been involved in pet rescue for over twenty-five years. She has written two books about her true-life adventures living with an ever-changing house full of pets: Born Without a Tail, and Circling the Waggins, and a guide to animal advocacy using the Internet as a tool: How to Change the World in 30 Seconds". Wulff also writes a pet column and book review column for the Examiner, and is a contributing editor for She attributes her love of animals to having been raised by Wulffs.
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