How Do Dogs Learn Words?

For most dogs owners, words like "sit," "walk," "treat," and "out" will usually elicit some type of response from their canine friends. Perhaps it's the terms, perhaps it's the tone, or perhaps it's the association they've built between the word and what comes next… whatever the case, dogs have been known to pick up parts of human languages, but how?

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How dogs learn

A recent article published by Psychology Today explains that dogs can use their sense of hearing to ascertain whether the term in question is referring to a thing, a verb, or an affirmation. While one sound may be referring to a ball, and another a walk, a new sound will signify a new thing, which dogs then associate together using the principle of mutual exclusivity. Researchers used fMRI machines to measure brain patterns in dogs when exposed to words they already knew compared to strange, new terms. With these scans, they were able to determine that a dog's auditory cortex became more activated after hearing words she was unfamiliar with, as opposed to known words, which resulted in less stimulation.

This function is referred to by some scientists as sharpening, which means that, when the brain detects an unfamiliar stimulus, you pay closer attention to what's going on around you in an effort to make an association, or figure out what that stimulus could mean. Before a dog's brain begins to sharpen, it overgeneralizes, which activates the brain into a place where learning is possible. To teach your dog in this state, it's recommended that you repeat the term while making eye contact with her, which will allow her to associate the two things, thereby learning the new word.

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How many words can a dog learn?

Border Collie, Rico, wowed audiences on a German television show after clearly recognizing 200 words using the process of elimination to determine with has handler was saying to him. Years later, another Border Collie, Chaser, surpassed that record after her owner, psychologist Dr. John W. Pilley, taught her 1,022 words with the help of toys. While these are certainly impressive numbers and serve as a testament to how many words a dog is technically capable of learning, the average dog falls short of these impressive feats, but that's not to say they aren't holding their own in the vocabulary department. According to Animal Planet, the average canine can learn up to or around 165 words, although some guess that that number can reach closer to 200 with training.

Understanding new words

If your dog's vocabulary is limited to the basics — sit, stay, down, walk, etc…, and you want to teach him more words, you'll have to start speaking in a way that he will understand, and that starts with consistency. For example, if you want your dog to stay, and you're saying "stay" but your child is telling the dog to "wait," your dog will likely have a very hard time putting everything together. To teach your dog new words, it's important that everyone in the household or involved in the dog's training is on the same page, and is using the same language, which will prevent confusion and set your canine up to succeed.

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Your dog will also pick up on short words over long ones, and pet behaviorist Pamela Reid told Animal Planet that dogs most likely only listen to the first syllable or letter you're speaking anyway, so try to use hard sounds, like T, over soft sounds, like S. Additionally, because dogs rely on reading the energy of those around them when placed in pack or social settings, body language is also a great teaching tool when working with dogs.

Making sure that your physical expression is matching the verbal cue you are giving your dog will be your best bet in helping him build new associations to words. Pet Helpful describes this as "overshadowing," and stressed the importance of having awareness around it. They go on to list saying "stay" while lowering your head at the same time as a prime example of how a minor body movement can allow a dog to misread what you're asking of him. Instead, do your best to remain still, calm, and confident when teaching your dog anything new, words included.