Dogs Understand Language

AP — Research Shows Dogs Understand Language

As many a dog owner will attest, our furry friends are listening. Now, for the doubters, there is scientific proof they understand much of what they hear.

German researchers have found a border collie named Rico who understands more than 200 words and can learn new ones as quickly as many children.

Patti Strand, an American Kennel Club board member, called the report “good news for those of us who talk to our dogs.”

“Like parents of toddlers, we learned long ago the importance of spelling key words like bath, pill or vet when speaking in front of our dogs,” Strand said. “Thanks to the researchers who’ve proven that people who talk to their dogs are cutting-edge communicators, not just a bunch of eccentrics.”

The researchers found that Rico knows the names of dozens of play toys and can find the one called for by his owner. That is a vocabulary size about the same as apes, dolphins and parrots trained to understand words, the researchers say.


Perhaps, although Paul Bloom of Yale University urges caution.

“Children can understand words used in a range of contexts. Rico’s understanding is manifested in his fetching behavior,” Bloom writes in a commentary, also in Science.

So, now we know that dogs can understand simple commands but aren’t as smart as children. One wonders how large the federal grant was to discover that totally obvious information?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dale Madren says:

    Looks like someone needs to revisit L. Wittgenstein’s comments regarding Hans the Wonder Horse, whom the scientists ‘confirmed’ count do mathematics. Hans would count the answer with his hoove beats. Of course, Hans real skill was being intimately in tune with his owner. Dogs don’t know words. Dogs do have communication skills. But only “researchers” would be slaves to the model human speech in their analysis.

  2. Hey, remember when Bill Maher compared retarded children to dogs? That was fun… :-/

  3. McGehee says:

    Well, when they come up with a dog that can write literally millions of words and shape people’s thinking or make them laugh out loud at their own foibles — and get paid for doing so — then I’ll be impressed.

    If I took that “fetch” test I’d flunk with flying colors. Tell me to “fetch” something for ya, and I’m as likely to ask after the condition of your presumably broken legs, as to ignore you outright.

  4. jen says:

    McGehee – heh.

  5. Brett says:

    Well, Rico’s a border collie. They’re already eerily close to being human. Try the tests with an Afghan hound (or, sadly, a pug) and the results would be much less impressive, I’m afraid.

    But if someone comes up with a dog with a sense of humor, I’ll be really, really impressed.

  6. McGehee says:

    I’m with Brett. And no, Brian Griffin doesn’t count.

  7. Alan Kellogg says:

    When I was a teen we had a samoyed (a breed from Siberia originally.). Damn smart animal. He learned what ‘walk’ and ‘ride’ meant. In both cases, upon hearing the word he would jump up and go to the kitchen drawer where we kept his leash. When the leash was on he’d haul us to the front door and wait anxiously for us to open it. If the word was ‘ride’ he’d head left to the car. If the word was ‘walk’ he’d head right.

    He’d get so excited we’d have him dancing around and getting in the way. Got to the point we started spelling the words out so he wouldn’t catch on.

    Then he learned to spell.

  8. Meezer says:

    Haven’t these researchers ever heard of Assistance Dogs or Seeing-Eye Dogs? They obviously know hundreds of words (assistance dogs especially as they have so many and varied tasks to perform).
    I remember a $100,000 (at the time a huge sum) study that sonorously intoned “Just discovered: cattle have an intricate social structure.” I spent my formative years watching “baby-sitter” cows getting stuck with all the kids while the high status mothers went off for mah-jong or cud-chewing. Any farmer could have told them what they wanted to know for the price of a long-distance phone call.