Does Your Dog Understand the Words You Say?

When I speak to my dogs, they seem to understand what I am saying. And the latest research is providing some evidence that may be true.

According to many experts like Stanley Coren, PhD, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, the average dog can understand at least 150-165 words. And with training and repetition, that number is likely to increase. Just try saying “scooby snack” several times a day while offering a delicious morsel and your pet will learn in no time.

One famous super learner was a border collie named Rico who appeared on a German TV game show in 2001 and demonstrated he could recognize 200 different words. During testing with Juliane Kaminski and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, he further proved he he could remember new words even afternot hearing them for a month as well as use the process of elimination to figure out unfamiliar words.

Another border collie named Chaser made headlines by demonstrating knowledge of over 1,000 words. Her owner, John W. Pilley, a psychologist at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, began training Chaser in 2004 by gradually teaching her the names of two toys a day. Her feats were detailed in a 2011 study in the Behavioural Processes Journal. The book “Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words” was later published in 2013. I wrote a longer post on him a couple years ago entitled Dog Intelligence and the Science Behind their Affection.


Most of us have long believed that while our pets might not understand the exact meaning of our words, they surely understand the basic intention based on our tone and body language. But a new imaging study by neuroscientists at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest shows that dogs’ brains respond to actual words – not just the tone.

Researchers with the Family Dog Project

A team led by Attila Andics tested 13 family dogs that included border collies, golden retrievers, Chinese crested dogs, and German shepherds. They trained them to lay completely motionless in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner.

“We measured dogs’ brain activity as they listened to their trainer’s speech,” explains Anna Gábor, PhD student, author of the study. “Dogs heard praise words in praising intonation, praise words in neutral intonation, and also neutral conjunction words, meaningless to them, in praising and neutral intonations. We looked for brain regions that differentiated between meaningful and meaningless words, or between praising and non-praising intonations.” [source]

Based on the findings, researchers concluded that dogs have brain areas dedicated to interpreting voices, distinguishing sounds (in the left hemisphere), and analyzing the sounds that convey emotions (in the right hemisphere).” [source]


Dog brains process both what we say and how we say it [Family Dog Project]
How Dogs Know What You’re Feeling [Science Mag]
Your dog understands more than you think [Science Mag]
With Dogs, It’s What You Say — and How You Say It [NY Times]
Your Dog Is Listening… Does He Understand What You’re Saying? [Healthy Pets]
How Many Words Do Dogs Know? [Animal Planet]
Smarter Than You Think: Renowned Canine Researcher Puts Dogs’ Intelligence on Par with 2-Year-Old Human [APA]
Brain Scans Show Striking Similarities Between Dogs and Humans (Wired]
Brain Scans of Dogs Reveal Neural Region Associated with Recognizing Faces [Real Clear Science]
World’s smartest pooch who knows more than a thousand words [Daily Mail]


Celebrate National Dog Day - August 26th
October is National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month