A dog really is ‘man’s best friend’. They don’t judge you, or hold on to a grudge if you’re grumpy in the morning. They always welcome you home with love, adoration and excitement. They are much more forgiving than many humans in your life, and you can absolutely count on them to be there for you, no matter what.
Most of us repay that devotion with food, water, shelter, companionship, love, exercise, socialization and health care. The flip side is that we can start to think our dogs are human, too. We can mistakenly think their brains process information the same as us, or that they have the same desires and expectations of life that we do.
Does My Dog Think Like Me?
This means we may begin making assumptions about how our dogs ‘think’, and how ‘intelligent’ they are. Humans have long been asking, do dogs understand words? How much can my dog understand? Are dogs intelligent? Can dogs learn English? The fact is, dogs are a lot less emotionally complex than us, which explains why they are the best companions.
It’s not natural for dogs to think in terms of words, pictures or symbols. They express themselves using various behaviors, depending on what they want or need. It’s up to us to try and understand them if we are to be their best friend, and try to enhance their lives, as they do ours.
The problem with projecting human characteristics onto a dog, is that we then measure a dog’s responses and behavior through a human filter, meaning we gauge their intelligence based on human intellect. For instance, we may perceive them as less intelligent because they can’t do algebra, or write a grocery list, or drive a car.
According to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child aged 2 to 2.5 years.
And Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, claims dogs may have basically the same cognitive ability as a 6 to 12 month old human infant.
But, is it correct to compare a dog’s intelligence to that of a human? I feel it’s a little like saying a child is unintelligent because they can’t build a computer. You never know what anyone is capable of, until you teach them. Dogs are fantastic students, who enjoy learning things. They need to be trained well, but after that they are extremely reliable in performing the task you ask of them. That’s why they make excellent service dogs, military dogs or support companions.
The Oxford dictionary definition of intelligence is, ‘the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills’.
Dogs, and many other animals certainly have this capability.
Can Dogs Learn Words?
In a 2016 study, researchers looked at brain activity in dogs, while the dogs listened to their owners talking to them. The dogs first had to learn how to lie still in the MRI scanner. If you’ve ever been in one of these, you know how noisy they are. Getting humans to lie still in a confined and noisy space is hard enough.
The dogs then had their brains scanned, while they listened to various words in different tones of voice. The researchers played recordings of their owners talking in four different ways. A praising word in a praising tone, a neutral word in a neutral tone, a praising word in a neutral tone, and a neutral word in a praising tone.
The scans revealed that, just like humans, dogs process words in the left brain hemisphere, and intonation in the right. The dogs were happiest when the tone and the words matched. This means that they can recognize words which are taught to them.
While they might respond tentatively to a praising tone using words they have not heard before, they are only genuinely happy when they understand the praise they are receiving. The researchers concluded that what we say and how we say it are both important to dogs.
A new study, completed in 2021 has reported that dogs can learn 12 new words a week.
Other evidence of dogs learning words has been reported, such as the Border Collie, Chaser, who learned over 1120 nouns.
How Do Dogs Learn?
Less is More
Dogs are very intelligent and love to learn. You just have to understand, and speak their language, too. It’s important to be consistent and clear with your dog. They will certainly learn the words you use most often when you’re addressing them. Words like ‘dinner’, ‘treat’, ‘no’, ‘yes’, and ‘car’ become very familiar to most dogs. So there’s no point saying something like, “If you’re a good dog and don’t chew my shoe today, I’ll take you for a long walk later”. Your dog will only hear “Good dog, walk”!
Dogs will never need to interpret long sentences, they’re not supposed to converse with us in that way. Simple and clear instructions, followed by positive reinforcement by way of a treat or a toy when they get it right. What you get out of your dog is dependent on what you put in. Just the same as teaching a skill to another human. Spending time with your dog is the most enriching experience for them, and for you.
Marker training is a popular method which uses a clicker or a specific word to cue your dog to the fact that they’ve done what you asked of them. Immediately after the click or the word, the treat is given. The word could be ‘yes’ or ‘good’. Just make sure that the marker word is only ever used for training, otherwise your dog will be confused when you say the word and they don’t get the treat.
You could make a special word up for this purpose, one which you will never use at any other time. Your special training word would be a secret language between you and your dog. Make it fun for both of you!
Quietly and Calmly
Saying a word loudly does not make it easier to understand. We tend to increase the volume of our speech in response to a misunderstanding by our dog. This will often lead to stress for both of you. If your dog is not completing the instruction, go back to teaching them what you want them to do. Be patient. Don’t just keep repeating something that isn’t successful.
Show them what you want by using a hand signal or a treat lure to make the behavior happen, mark it with your special word, or a click, and then reward it. It takes repetition and consistency for your dog to learn new skills, so make it easy. They absolutely love it when they know they’ve done the right thing, and you reward and praise them.
Dogs are very adept at reading our body language. If your dog is a little nervous or apprehensive at training, go gently. Avoid standing over them, or making sudden, quick movements with your arms. Get down on your knees, if you can. They feel much more secure when you’re at the same level. If your dog is at all nervous, keep your face away from theirs, and never stare them in the eye. Our adopted dog, Jinks, can suddenly revert back to old fears and become tense, stressed and unpredictable. No matter how much you think you can trust your dog, if they become stressed and ‘compressed’, they will act out of their normal character.
Is It Good To Reward Dogs With Treats?
I think the use of treats to motivate and reward good behavior is essential for many dogs. It’s especially true if you’re trying to train an adult, or older dog. I try to keep treats to a minimum, and I use the healthiest treats I can buy. As soon as my dog has mastered a new command or instruction, I start rewarding with smaller and smaller treats, but bigger and more boisterous praise. Eventually I completely replace treat rewards with exuberant pats and verbal praise.
There is evidence to suggest that dogs prefer praise to treats, it’s just that we have taught them the ‘habit’ of receiving edible praise after doing something we have asked of them.
Training your dog and teaching them words can be fun and rewarding. If you have the time to be consistent, keep calm and learn how to communicate effectively with your dog, you’ll be amazed what they can learn. Some dogs may learn quicker than others, but it’s not about being intelligent. It’s about bonding with your hound, and doing something together that they love, and gives them an opportunity to earn a reward.
The joy on my dog’s face when I praise her for following an instruction or completing a task, is priceless.