Can Dogs Understand Humans? What Do They Really Know About Us?


Last Updated: June 7, 2023 | 4 min read | Leave a Comment

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girl whispering into a goldens ear with family behind her all sitting on a sofa

We all talk to our furry family members and would love to imagine that they’re grasping our conversations with them. But in reality, how much do dogs understand what we say? Do dogs understand English and other languages? Sure, dogs can recognize basic verbal commands, but do they comprehend human-to-human dialogue?

Over the last decade, scientists have conducted several experiments to uncover how our canine counterparts interpret our speech. We’ll share some of the most recent discoveries on how our pups process human language.

Do Dogs Understand Words?

It’s widely accepted that dogs can learn a variety of verbal commands and other words or phrases. A scientific survey of pup parents found that the average family dog recognizes about 90 words. And 90 percent of these dogs recognized 10 commonly trained words, such as the dog’s name, “sit,” “no,” and “stay.”

Far less commonly recognized words or phrases included “whisper,” “wipe your feet,” and “loud.” Survey analysis also found that dogs’ professional work status (e.g., service dogs), breed type, and how quickly the dog learns new tricks were all reliable predictors of the number of words reportedly recognized.

Some experts, however, say our family pups have an even greater “vocabulary” capacity. Stanley Coren, Ph.D., a well-recognized expert on human-dog interactions and author of “The Intelligence Of Dogs,” believes that the average domesticated dog can learn an estimated 165 words and phrases. However, Coren has found that the most intelligent dog breeds (Border Collies, Poodles, and German Shepherds top his list) can learn around 250 words with extensive training.

How Do Dogs Understand Humans?

While our dogs clearly can respond to verbal cues, does that mean they understand words in the same way we do? Through scientific research, we know that dogs keenly read our tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. And some scientists think these factors play a far greater role in our dogs’ word recognition abilities than actually understanding the meaning of words. However, some believe dogs have the capability to decipher word meanings regardless of the tone of voice used.

Although studies are limited, a handful of scientists have begun using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to learn what’s going on inside our pup’s brains when they’re spoken to rather than just analyzing their behavioral reactions to our speech.

For example, researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, have found that dogs use both the left and right sides of their brains when listening to speech, much like we do. In humans, the right side of the brain is responsible for interpreting tone (emotion), while the left side processes word meaning.

Even more interesting, these dogs only used both sides of their brains when they were being praised with recognizable words or phrases, like “good boy,” in a positive tone. When these same words were spoken in a neutral tone, only the left side of the brain lit up. And meaningless words, like “however,” spoken in a praising, positive tone only activated the right side of the brain. These findings, therefore, suggest that both what we say and how we say it are crucial to our furry friends.

How Much Do Dogs Understand What We Say?

While dogs have some human-like abilities to analyze speech sounds, are they able to interpret what every word means? There’s some evidence to suggest that dogs don’t decipher the phonetic details in our speech.

For example, you could tell your dog to “stay” or “shay,” and may likely get the same trained response to “stay.” In a 2020 study using the same group of dogs as in previous research, Hungarian scientists used fMRI to analyze their cognitive responses to three types of words: familiar instruction words (sit, stay, etc.), phonetically similar nonsense words, and phonetically dissimilar nonsense words.

Researchers found differences in how the canine brain responded to known words versus phonetically dissimilar nonsense words. However, there were no differences between known versus phonetically similar words. These results could help explain why the ability of dogs to recognize a multitude of words is far more limited than humans.

Do Dogs Understand English & Other Languages?

Previously, scientists believed only humans had the capacity to distinguish between languages. But in a 2022 study led again by Eötvös Loránd University, researchers found that dogs’ brains can distinguish between the human language they’re familiar with and a foreign language.

In the experiments, native Spanish and Hungarian speakers read sentences from “The Little Prince” to 18 dogs in an MRI scanner. (Two of the dogs were native Spanish, while 16 were Hungarian.) Brain scans showed different activity patterns to a familiar and an unfamiliar language that were consistent across all dogs.

These dogs likely didn’t fully understand what was being read to them. But results confirm that dogs are social learners, constantly absorbing the language and world around them.

What Do Dogs Know About Us?

Because our furbabies are family members, we naturally want to understand what they know about us. How in tune are they with our moods and habits? I’m always in awe of my pup every time I’m just beginning to get ready to leave the house. My dog, Tiny, goes to his crate long before I’m ready to walk out the door. How does he know? It almost seems like he can read my mind at times.

Dogs are keenly aware of our habits and emotions because they’re constantly focusing on us. They’re expert observers of even the most subtle clues, including our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Our furry friends can tell when we’re sad or mad, and they have an amazing ability to sense our actions even before we’re aware of them.

And dogs even know things about us that we don’t. Take, for example, the fact that some dogs can detect cancer, on-coming seizures, and dangerously low blood sugar. There’s a reason canines make such excellent companions for people with disabilities as well as the general population. They really are humans’ best friends.

See More About Hungarian Scientists’ Research (Video)

Check out this brief video by CBS This Morning about one of Eötvös Loránd University’s earliest ground-breaking fMRI studies (complete with adorable photos of their furry participants).

On The Flip Side: Understanding Your Dog’s Communication

How well do you understand what your pup is trying to communicate? Sure, our dogs can’t talk to us, but they have fairly sophisticated ways of expressing themselves. See our guide on dog body language if you’re curious about the various vocalizations your pup makes, what his tail position can tell you, and much more.

The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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