Our Dogs Can Sense and Understand a Lot More than We Think They Can


Ever wonder why “Fido” will sit, heel, or maybe even rollover and play dead? Since dogs can’t actually reply to their owner’s commands, other than an acknowledging yip, it’s hard to be certain they really understand spoken words.

However, canine scientists assure us that they do. We regularly converse with man’s best friend, but how much of the conversation do dogs mentally process? It seems they may be able to sense and to understand more than we think.

In fact, dogs sense our emotional tones and body language. But that’s not all. In a study by Péter Pongrácz at the Family Dog Project in Budapest, owners were asked to provide a series of common commands they gave to their dogs.

What Pongrácz discovered was an astonishing level of verbal diversity. Dogs know the difference between dozens of different commands. Likewise, Julia Fischer, a group leader at the German Primate Center’s Cognitive Ethology Lab, decided to test a dog’s awareness of objects.

A border collie named Rico was one of the test dogs. In an article published in Science, Rico reportedly could differentiate between the words used for over 200 objects. A few years later, another border collie in South Carolina nailed over 1,000 different objects.

“Chaser” knew the difference between various stuffed animals by their names. Border collies aren’t the only smart dogs that have been studied. A 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Bailey knew the names of 120 different toys.

Many, falsely we might add, believe that dogs are guided more by tone or physical mannerisms. That’s incorrect. While tone of voice is a huge contributor to a dog’s understanding of specific commands, the actual words clearly matter.

Canine research specialist Dr. Lilla Magyari says, “If some owners are thinking that it doesn’t matter what I say to my dog because the dog is watching the gestures I do or finding out from context what he or she should do, it’s not entirely true. They do listen to human speech.”

A 2021 study at Dalhousie University estimated that the average dog understands around 90 words or phrases. According to the research, the smaller the dog breed the greater the level of word understanding.

This wasn’t always true, but smaller breeds seemed to have a wider range of word understanding. Since the actual word itself isn’t the most important aspect of canine speech understanding, it didn’t really matter what language was spoken.

Dog trainers suggest teaching a dog commands in a foreign language to provide an indisputable level of control. For instance, rarely would anyone expect a dog to be taught to respond to commands given in Russian. The military and law enforcement frequently use this technique.

But even more pronounced than a dog’s ability to understand words, is their appreciation of emotions. Dogs are able to tell when their owners are angry, agitated, or especially frightened. Have you ever thought it’s cute that Fido wants to cuddle when you’re feeling sad?

It’s because of a dog’s phenomenal sense of smell. Human emotions emit pheromones. A dog’s keen sense of smell picks up on these different hormones and pheromones. Dogs can even sniff out different diseases like COVID-19 and cancer.

This is truly amazing. The medical community is just beginning to research how valuable dogs could be in sending early medical alarms of a potential problem. There are other misconceptions about man’s best friend. A wagging tail isn’t always a sign of happiness.

Likewise, dogs aren’t necessarily fond of kissy face. When your dog seems to have a penchant for licking your face, he or she may just be after the extra salty taste of your skin. But what’s obvious from all this research is that dogs understand a lot more than we give them credit.

They also have a keen sense of our emotions. Dogs can smell fear, sadness, and even our unbridled exuberance. The connection between dogs and humans cannot be overstated. It’s obvious in how they act. Dogs have earned the title of “man’s best friend” for good reason.

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