Do Dogs Understand English? The Truth Revealed

by McKenny Joshua | Last Updated: March 27, 2020

Hey Oscar, go get the ball.” “Come on Timmy, let’s go for a walk”. “Coco, don’t chew that ball!” 

Do these sound familiar to you? Who do you think we say these to?

Yes, these are some of the regular commands you would hear in a house having a dog as a pet. We love our pets and love to converse or socialize with them, don’t we?

But of all pets, we seem to enjoy conversations the most with dogs because they are smart and intelligent creatures. That is one reason why people often ask – do dogs understand English?

There have been so much research just to arrive at this answer.

Many researchers concluded that dogs do not understand any language, not just English; however, they said that they do understand the tone of the spoken words.

Then there were still some other researchers who experimented with dogs to arrive at the answer.

Some academics in Hungary, for instance, monitored the brains of thirteen dogs on MRI, as the researchers conversed with them in English.

Their one-of-a-kind experiment revealed that dogs understand English. They did have an idea about the meaning of those sounds of the words uttered during the study.

The Dog Craze

The Americans are very fond of pets. 73 million homes in the US will have one pet at a minimum.

Millions of animals are bought and adopted every year – dogs, cats, birds, fishes, reptiles, and other smaller animals.

The number of cats existing as pets in the United States is 88.3 million, while the number of dogs existing as pets is 74.8 million.

In spite of the fact that cat ownership is higher than that of dogs, the canines still remain the most popular companion to humans. They are loyal, interactive, protective, and caring to its master. They are also friendly with kids, mostly owing to their playful nature.

This is one reason why any average American home would want and love a dog more than any other pet.

Sometimes, due to certain family issues or due to space constraints at home, people there cannot keep dogs, but given a chance and the problems hypothetically removed, they are sure to choose dogs over any other animal.

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According to research, there is no loyalty better than a dog’s. Also, they are sensitive to their master’s emotions.

If you have a dog and you are unhappy, your pet pooch will try to distract you playfully to drag you out of your sullen mood. 

The connect is so high between humans and dogs that it appears surprising to dog owners if you tell them that their dogs don’t understand what they say.

Dog lovers would love to tell you that dogs understand them and that they understand English. But do they really?

Famous Studies

In 2016 in Budapest, Hungary, a group of researchers from the Eotvos Lorand University chose 13 dogs for their quest to understand the workings of the dog brain.

They chose dogs from varied breeds –golden retrievers, border collies, a Chinese crested dog, and a German shepherd – to keep the experiment as balanced as possible.

They trained those pooches to sit quietly at the MRI machines with headphones for 7 minutes and listen to the sentences or words being spoken to them, reported Reuters.

They used words like “super”, “well done”, and “good boy” as they kept measuring the dogs’ brain activities.

All of these words were used once in praising tones and then again in neutral, flat tones. The academics also used normal conjunctive words like “however” in their sentences in both intonations.

These words like “however” were not supposed to convey any specific meaning. This was the “control” part of the experiment to check if only tones mattered, as is the popular belief with dogs.

Had the dogs responded to “however’ in a praising tone, it would have indicated that dogs did not understand the words, but only the tones. But the findings, as contrary to popular belief, were ground-breaking.

The dogs did not respond to “however” in praising intonation in the same way as they responded to “well done” in a praising tone, thus proving that it is not just the tones that are processed by the dog brain.

What the researchers found through the study is that dogs process human speech much like the humans themselves.

They used the left side of their brain to process words and the right side of their brain to process tones, explained Attila Andics, who is the lead researcher at the Ethology department of the university.

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She also said that the reward centers of their brains were found to be activated only when they heard praising words in praising tones, and not just for praising tones.

When the praising words reached them along with the praising tones, it is then that dogs responded back happily through some action (like raising one paw to show excitement).

This did not happen when they heard the meaningless conjunctive words in praising tones. Meaningless words in praising tones only activated the right hemisphere of their brain.

And when praising words like “super” and “well done” were used in non-praising, flat tones, only their left hemisphere activated to process the words.

There were no observed brain activity in the right hemisphere. 

These findings helped the scholars conclude that dogs are not only able to distinguish between what we say and how we say it, but they are also able to connect the two together to arrive at a proper understanding of what is being said/meant to them.

This is exactly how a human brain works. And this finding favors the argument that dogs do understand English. 

There was another study conducted in 2004 with a border collie, which swept the scientists off their feet.

In an overwhelming turn, the Border collie named Rico showed high-level language understanding capabilities. Rico could build a basic hypothesis regarding any word’s meaning only after a single exposure to the word.

The dog learned the names of 200 different objects and could even memorize them after 4 weeks from first exposure.

This fast-mapping was one of its kind in the canine world and the study came to be famously known as the Rico study.

The Rico study inspired a psychology professor in South Carolina, US, to experiment with language learning skills on his pet border collie.

Amazingly, his dog Chaser created a world record by learning over 1000 words.

Leaving the humans aside, that is the biggest known vocabulary existing in any animal. Chaser not only understood names or nouns, but also verbs, prepositions, and adverbs.

Counter-logic

Although many experiments and studies, as discussed above, indicate that dogs have the capacity to understand English, there are still many who would differ.

A professor in Ethology and PhD in Evolutionary Biology, Mr. Roger Abrantes, strongly believe that dogs do not understand English or any other language for that matter.

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According to him, dogs understand words as sounds and combine it with the tone to form meaning. Tones are important, of course, echoed Abrantes – “we do not need any experiments to verify that.”

His counter logic was that dogs do not understand the meaning of words technically. They look at words as sounds and associate those sounds with certain objects or actions through repetition.

So if a dog is told “go out” or “sit down” repeatedly, it will respond to perform the desired action.

And if you lovingly pat its back and forbid it do something with “Don’t do that buddy”, chances are that your pet pooch will continue doing that because here, the tone is what mattered, combined with the action (pat on the back). Unless you sound firm, they are not able to make sense from just the words “Don’t do that.”

Body language of the speaker, facial expression of the speaker and the tone of spoken words – all these combined have a lasting impact on what meaning the dog derives from words. 

Conclusion

As the truth unfolds, the answer to the question “do dogs understand English?” is neither a clear ‘no’, nor a clear ‘yes’.

Of course, they communicate with us and can follow our instructions well, but it may perhaps be more out of sound-to-action association than out of actual language acquisition.

Having said that, it is also true that some dogs have more language understanding skills than the rest.

For example, border collies have, so far, been found to be the smartest of all dogs with huge communication and learning abilities.

Therefore, instead of trying to arrive at a more definite answer, why not check with your dog yourself?

Of course, it will understand you, but is it really understanding the language or just decoding the sound-object or sound-action associations continuously?

It is for you to find out. You are the best judge. So, good luck with your canine curiosity!