Ask any dog owner whether or not their dog can understand them, and 9 out of 10 times, they’ll say yes!
Dogs are very intelligent animals, able to figure out how to communicate with us often faster than we figure out how to communicate with them. But on a scientific level, how many words can a dog really learn in our language?
On average, dogs can learn about 165 words. More intelligent breeds like the Border Collie, Standard Poodle, and German Sheperd can remember an average of 250 words. In contrast, regular untrained dogs can remember an average of 89. Dogs generally have a comprehension level akin to a two-year-old child.
In this article, I will dive into the scientific facts behind how well dogs can understand our language, learn our words, and remember what we tell them.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Each dog is different - one pup may be a dictionary of words, and another may only remember five. How much your dog can learn about the human language depends on the individual pup.
That being said, studies have been conducted on a dog’s ability to retain words and understand their meanings (or commands).
The results showed that, on average, dogs can retain around 165 human words. However, the more intelligent breeds can remember an average of 250 words with good training and proper consistency.
Dogs that are not trained (since not all dog owners are created equal, or some dogs end up in sad situations) can pick up about 89 human words naturally without training.
Now, when we talk about “words”, we are referring to commands, sentences, and the names of objects. Although naming of objects may seem like it doesn’t belong on our list, a dog understanding the name of each individual item is a pretty big deal - this speaks to their ability to remember information and apply this to a particular item.
There are some really remarkable dogs that have learned tremendously more words than the average. Chaser, the Border Collie, learned over 1,000 different words! He was considered the most intelligent dog in the world.
“Meaning of a word” is a bit of a vague, sparse statement. The purpose of language is to effectively communicate a thought, and sometimes that thought is wrapped in a complete sentence rather than just an individual word.
What I mean by this is this: someone learning a new language may remember a full phrase and understand what the phrase means but not know the exact meaning behind the individual words that make up that phrase (for example).
If you use the same statements repeatedly correlating with an action or behavior, your dog will begin associating the two. This is similar to how children learn to communicate. Your dog may not understand each individual word for the individual word it is, but your dog will understand the full sentence.
As mentioned, dogs’ cognitive capacities are comparable to those of a two- to two-and-a-half-year-old human toddler, according to additional studies.
Dogs even learn very similarly, with the same study showing that dogs learn words best when the word is used in conjunction with an action or an item. For example, using a specific toy when playing with your dog and naming the toy. The dog will correlate the toy’s name with the toy itself as a result.
As such, the three types of words that dogs can understand include the names of objects, actions and commands, and categories. Smart dogs like Chaser the Border Collie could understand word categories, such as “toys”, “balls”, “frisbees”, and more.
But regarding categorizing words, researchers are torn as to whether this is due to good (repetitive) training or if the dog was able to actually make out the word itself. The jury is still a bit out on this one!
Dogs are also masters at reading body language and social cues that may appear invisible to us. Dogs can reference our verbal statements against our body language to further understand what we are trying to communicate to them. This is a further reason that dog owners believe their dogs can understand everything they are told!
Not all dogs are created equal - some dogs are definitely smarter than others. Although each pup is very much an individual, there are dog breeds that are predisposed to higher intelligence levels. Higher intelligence equals a better ability to retain words and commands.
Much of this has to do with what the dog was bred for. Generally speaking, herding and working breeds are the most intelligent as they need their cognitive ability for their work.
Herding dogs consistently problem-solve and mitigate risk, all while listening to the needs of their handlers. Working dogs are very similar to this, often accompanying hunters to find wild game.
Through a study conducted by Stanley Coren, Ph.D. (published in his world-famous book The Intelligence of Dogs), the breeds that can learn the most human words include:
And several more! Rankings were based on what the dogs were able to retain.