Do Dogs Understand Human Language?

Good dog! Buen perro! Bon chien! If you compliment your dog in one of these three human languages – or a number of others – is he going to understand you? Could you possibly teach your pup how to be multilingual, like some sort of canine CIA spy?

Fawn Pug
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You may be wondering if everything you say translates as jibber jabber to your dog, or he really knows what you are talking about. Perhaps you've had friends come over and speak to him in a different language, and it seems like he understood. Is that really the case, or is your dog reacting to something else?

Dogs and human language

The jury is out on how dogs understand human language. While dogs are pretty smart creatures, some research shows they do not understand any human language.

Other research shows that they may in fact be processing language—we just don't know exactly how. In one study, researchers used an fMRI, or a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, to see how dogs' brains light up when humans talk to them. They originally found that the left side of dogs' brains were active when they were being talked to. This was revolutionary, because humans process language in the left sides of their brains as well. However, in a follow-up report, researchers admitted that they confused the sides of the brain they were studying, and that the right side of dogs' brains lit up when being talked to.

So, while we don't yet know how dogs process human language, we do know that they understand the sounds of words in any language.

Smiling dog portrait
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For example, if a dog hears "down" in English or another language and then "down" matches up with an action he is supposed to take, he will learn what "down" means. Of course, when training a pup on how to understand commands, it's best to tie in some rewards and treats he will love so he grasps it even quicker. Sometimes, your dog may fully understand but be noncompliant because he doesn't like the reward/treat, or a more attractive option has presented itself (i.e. a cat has come into the yard or he's distracted by someone at the door).

Dogs also can't comprehend sentences. For instance, if you say, "Let's go outside!", he is going to be responding to your excited tone or the sound of the word "outside," because he knows that means it's time for a walk, his absolute favorite thing.

Adjusting your tone

Along with sounds, dogs also learn tones. When your dog is good, you want to talk to him in a sweet and gentle voice, because that's how he knows he is doing something right. If your dog misbehaves, use a more serious tone. Again, rewarding good behavior is much more effective than punishing bad behavior when it comes to training.

Dogs and body language

Though dogs can't understand human language, they are experts at interpreting human body language. If you're lying on the floor, your dog might realize that's an invitation for him to come up and lick your face or cuddle with you. He'll also know what it means when you point to something.

It's always best to be confident around your pup and other dogs, and to read up on body language that's considered aggressive to dogs. For instance, you don't want to go to a dog park and look a strange dog right in the eye; he could see that as a sign that you're challenging him and start to bark at or lunge at you.

Dogs can also tell how humans are feeling based on their faces, according to one study. After being shown pictures of people who had angry, fearful or happy expressions on their faces, the participating dogs' heart rates rose.

Rottweiler Mix Dog Lounging Indoors on Couch with Head Tilted
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Dogs and smell

You may think your dog understands how you're feeling, even if you're not saying any words he knows or interacting with him much. If you think your dog knows when you're sad or fearful, you're not so off. According to one study, dogs can smell when we are feeling a certain emotion, and they will take on a similar emotional state. In short, if you are scared, your dog might start to act scared, too.

While your dog may not be able to understand English or any other human language, he still has many intelligent ways of communicating with you and interpreting what you're trying to say.