Dogs learn a lot more about our spoken language and body language than we teach them. We train our dogs to learn verbal commands, but many smart dogs learn to understand words we haven’t purposely taught them. We may find ourselves saying, “Let’s go for a walk” as we pick up the leash. The dog first associates the leash with the promise of going for a walk. He may then learn the word “walk” without his owner making a move toward the door or picking up the leash.
Midnight was a very smart dog and would know that a family trip to Arkansas was eminent the day before when suitcases were being packed, and he would get very anxious. When bags were taken to the car before dawn, he would go insane barking and jumping at the front door. His family attempted to pack in secret, but he was smarter than that. He started learning of plans for a trip just through the family’s conversation. The dog learned the words “trip” and “Arkansas” and hearing them would set him off. The kids were told not say those words around the dog.
On one such trip, the dog actually got out the door while the family was loading up and went straight to the car, sat in his designated spot and didn’t make a sound. After that, each trip started with saying to the dog, “Want to go to Arkansas?” Upon hearing those words, Midnight would run out to the car and calmly wait.
Dogs Learn Many Words, but Body Language Rules
Astute owners who notice their dog’s language skills, and believe they have a very smart dog, have tried to develop their dog’s vocabulary further by teaching words rather than commands. Some smart dogs are able to find their ball when the owner says, “Where’s your ball?” Some dogs seem to learn an extensive vocabulary and can follow detailed directions like, “go to my desk and bring me my pen.” While this ability astounds dog owners, and anyone watching, scientists have tested smart dogs who show such prowess, and the findings are less or more impressive, depending upon how you look at it.
Dogs learn many words, without a doubt, especially names of objects or commands. But to follow more complex directions, dogs rely on other skills. According to Stanley Coren in How to Speak Dog, a dog will listen to your words, and watch your subtle, even subconscious body language, and then add his most reasonable guess to figure out what you want him to do.
In the above command, for example, the dog may know what a pen is because his owner taught him that word-object association. The person giving the direction made a subconscious glance in the direction of the desk, and that body language told the dog which way to go. Most dogs are masters at reading body language. The dog goes to the desk and sees the pen. The most reasonable and obvious thing for a smart, well-trained dog to do with an object, is to retrieve it. This creates a very convincing illusion that the dog understood spoken language well enough to follow a complex command.
In How to Speak Dog, to test the theory that dogs rely more on our body language than words, a dog was told to go to one place, but the person speaking glanced in a different direction. The dog always read the body language and went to where the person was looking.
Dogs may never have a complete command of our spoken language, but their ability and interest in listening to our words and observing our body language in order to do what we ask of them, to ultimately please us, is truly impressive.
More stories about dogs and language
Dog Language is International
The Wagging Tail