Picking up where I left off in the last two Doggie Discourse blog posts, I wanted to finish by talking a little bit about what dogs can understand from human language—both body and spoken. I have always known that my pup Sadie is smart, but it was so interesting for me to find studies that look closely at her actual learning potential! It has always amazed me how Sadie knows to go jump in bed when she sees me brushing my teeth, or how she starts to stretch in anticipation of her lunch break walk when she sees me switching out my work heels for a pair of flip flops. Now I know just how much of my verbal and nonverbal communication Sadie understands!
A recent study from Harvard shows that dogs are more in tune with our body language than chimpanzees or even three year old human babies! The team at Harvard duplicated an earlier study in which researchers conducted a test on chimpanzees and 3 year old humans. In the original study, the researchers placed food under a bucket. Both buckets had been rubbed with the food so that they both had a similar scent. Using different body language that gradually became less obvious (tapping the bucket, pointing at the bucket, leaning toward the bucket, and just looking at the bucket), they attempted to determine how often the chimpanzees and toddlers would choose the correct bucket based on body language alone. The folks at Harvard repeated the same study on dogs, and found that dogs were much more successful at choosing the correct bucket! I was initially skeptical of this study, thinking: “Well, duh dogs win. Their sense of smell alone could win this contest!” I need to remember to trust the folks at Harvard, and a more in depth reading on my part revealed that the test was also done on wolves, who were far less successful at choosing the correct container, proving that domesticated dogs do have a special level of understanding when it comes to human communication.
Dogs also are capable of understanding spoken language (to a certain extent). New studies have found that dogs can learn to around 160 words—the same as a two year old human child! Rico, a Border Collie, is especially adept at understanding human language. Rico is able to learn the name of items and, a month later, still remembers the names. This is the same level of functioning as a three year old human! Rico is also able to determine what a new word means. If three toys are placed in front of him, and he knows the names of two, he will pick up the unknown toy when he hears an unfamiliar word. What other animal is capable of that?
I hope that you found my series on dog-human communication interesting! Hopefully this information will help you learn how to train your dog and generally learn how to interpret what he is trying to communicate with you.