Dogs’ Understanding of Human Words Likely Limited

scientists say dogs react the same to known commands and phonetically similar words

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Dogs may not understand us as well as we’d like to think they do, Science Alert reported. Brain scans of canines showed they reacted similarly to known commands and similar-sounding substitute words. However, verbal cues still work to train dogs.

Woman training multiple dogs
Several techniques are used to train dogs, including verbal cues and hand signals. Photo By Oscity / Shutterstock

According to Science Alert, man’s best friends may not quite be the expert linguists we hope they are. “Despite dogs’ excellent hearing and ability to analyze and process different speech sounds, a new study led by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, indicates that even minor differences may be missed by dogs, who fail to distinguish subtle variances between similar-sounding words,” the article said.

The university conducted a study by hooking dogs up to electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes and examining how their brains responded to three kinds of words. The first were known commands like “sit,” the second were phonetically similar nonsense words like “sut,” and the third were dissimilar sounding nonsense words like “bep.” The article said the dogs responded differently between known commands and dissimilar nonsense words, but their brains responded similarly to the known commands and the similar-sounding nonsense words.

Despite this, dogs still do recognize verbal commands in general. Just because they can’t differentiate between “sit” and “sut” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught to put their bottoms down when asked.

Working Your Way up to Sit

One way to coax a dog into performing a learned behavior is to use a lure-and-reward method. Pet owners can lure dogs to a certain location or position with food, and then offer that lure as a reward. Jean Donaldson, Founder and Principal Instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, said that the second step is to use “an empty hand but a broad, literal signal” to indicate that you want the dog to sit.

“See if the dog will do the behavior for a hand signal, but without the food,” she said. “Here, he has infinite latency—as much time as he needs to do the behavior. Do not repeat, or chant, the signal; just hold in position. If your dog has difficulty with ‘sit’ from ‘down,’ rather than going from a very apparent lure to nothing, tuck the lure in your hand, then do the signal, and give infinite latency.”

Once the dog responds to a hand signal, get him or her used to a smaller hand signal. After that, Donaldson said the next step is to follow a very important sequence of events: Give the verbal cue, wait a few seconds, then use the hand signal. If the dog sits when the hand signal is given, then pay him or her with the lure or a reward.

“You’re shopping for a response to the verbal,” she said. “Jumping the prompt—in this case, a hand signal—means that the dog sits on the verbal before you’ve had a chance to deliver the hand signal. If your dog is new to this behavior, he may take a while to get it.”

Donaldson said that it’s actually quite normal for a dog to take a while before understanding verbal cues. Consistency is key, as is positive reinforcement. She said that the process of a dog performing the desired behavior per verbal command varies greatly from dog to dog.

“Some dogs will respond to verbal cues pretty readily, within a session or two,” Donaldson said, “but sometimes it takes multiple sessions.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Jean Donaldson contributed to this article. Donaldson is the founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, which has trained and certified more than 700 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training, and private behavior counseling since 1999. Ms. Donaldson is a four-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion.