Dogs have a grasp of human vocabulary equivalent to a one-year-old infant

A well-publicised study concluded that dog owners reported that their dogs responded, on average, to 89 words and phrases. It varied, depending upon the circumstances and the dog, between 15-215 words and phrases. The researchers provided participating dog owners with 172 words and phrases separated into seven categories which the owners then rated. 

Dogs have a grasp of human vocabulary equivalent to a one-year-old infant
Dogs have a grasp of human vocabulary equivalent to a one-year-old infant. Image: Pixabay.

The owners could add words and phrases. The 'goal of the study was to develop a reliable, valid and comprehensive instrument designed to estimate the number of words and phrases to which domestic dogs reportedly respond consistently and differentially' in the words of the researchers.

The researchers are from Dalhousie University, Canada. The research is published online in Applied Animal Behavioural Science. The classic response to the phrase "Good girl/Good boy!" was usually tail-wagging or a treat-seeking behaviour.

Different languages?

Clearly the dogs responded to the English language in the study. We have to presume that dogs in different countries respond to different languages in the same way. It would be interesting to find out if dogs find understanding some languages more difficult than others. I would doubt it, but it is a possibility. This is not discussed in the report that I've seen.

Commands

In all, 165 owners participated. Their dogs recognised the names of their owners and phrases concerned with eating such as "treat" and "dinner". They also responded well to objects that they can chase such as "ball" and "squirrel". And of course we would expect that commands that are commonly used such as "sit", "wait", "no biting" and "no jumping" to be commonly understood and they were.

The researchers concluded that a dog's ability regarding vocabulary is equivalent to a one-year-old human.

Commands make up a substantial proportion of words and phrases spoken to dogs. The response is normally immediate and consistent. This allowed the participants to assess their dogs' reaction accurately. Dogs appeared to respond to commands relatively easily and their owners used a preponderance of commands when communicating.

Nouns

They state that nouns may be more difficult to teach to ensure that dogs' responses to them are selective. They state that only "select dogs with extensive training appear to learn to respond selectively to object words".

Several of the participants selected the word "toys" to add to the provided list. The researchers expected to see responses dependent upon the dogs' age. However, there was no correlation between the age of the dogs and how well they were responded to words and phrases. The age of the dogs varied between five months and 14.6 years.

Dog's age

They concluded that "word-based responses in dogs may not increase systematically with age as it does for human infants". Dogs depend upon training rather than life experiences to understand words and phrases.

Purebred

Owners added their own words and used more verbs if they lived with a purebred dog compared to mixed-breed dogs. This is probably because purebred dogs had already received some sort of training from their breeder and perhaps it is because the owners of purebred dogs might in general be more experienced in training dogs.

Dog breeds

More experienced dog owners are likely to use more words and phrases when communicating with their dog. The purebred dogs responding the best were the toy-companion and herding dog breeds. Therefore not all purebred dogs are equal in their abilities to respond to human language. Herding dogs are more likely to be better as they are bred to excel at human interaction. And toy-companion dogs are also specifically bred to interact with people but not for work purposes but for entertainment and companionship.

In contrast, sports-gun dogs responded less well to words and phrases compared to toy-companion and herding dogs. A factor in this difference may be "differences between owners of different breeds rather than dogs belonging to different breed groups". This implied that the behaviour of the owners had an effect upon their dogs' understanding of what they were saying.

The researchers stated that dogs have learned to respond to human non-verbal and verbal cues in a way that is unmatched by any other animal.

Cats

What about domestic cats? As usual, researchers prefer to work with dogs because they're more pliable and obedient. They perceive cats as being unmanageable in a research environment. That's my perception. But it would be nice to know how cats compared to dogs. They would no doubt compare badly. This is essentially because the domestication of the dog was about working dogs. Working dogs interact with their humans all the time. This has generated an ability to respond to human language. By contrast, domestic cats only fleetingly were working animals when they were first domesticated. They are companions for company and entertainment. They don't have a history of having to understand human commands.

Train cats

That said, cats are trainable and Dr. Bruce Fogle believes that cats should be trained at least to a certain extent so that they can understand what you want which in turn benefits the human-cat relationship. Training cat would result in less cat relinquishment to shelters. There is no doubt in my mind about. It needn't be complicated or demanding. Just some basic commands would do. Of course, in the best homes there is always an informal level of mutual training.

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