It is somewhat common knowledge that our canine pals have, at the very least, some capacity for understanding human language. Simply train a dog to “sit” or “stay” or “fetch” and this fact is obvious. Perhaps that is one reason they are “Man’s Best Friend”: the fact they really do listen and respond to us. The extent of their understanding, on the other hand, is still something we are trying to figure out.
Of course, the reality of the situation is that dogs don’t really have a cognitive understanding of our language. What they do have, however, is a capacity to comprehend non-verbal cues and how they relate to the sounds we make; sounds that we call words.
In a recent study, for example, researchers note that while most dog owners tend to believe their dogs really do understand some words, we really don’t have any scientific evidence to support it. Lead study author Ashley Prichard, who is a PhD candidate with the Emory University Department of Psychology, comments that it is important to get the data from the dogs instead of their owners.
To study this further, researchers trained twelve dogs—of different breeds—for several months to simply retrieve two objects based on the name of each object. Each dog was given one object with a soft texture—like a stuffed animal—and one object of a different texture—like a hard rubber ball—to differentiate them.
The training consisted of obeying a fetch command with a food or praise reward for bringing back the correct item. Training continued until the researchers concluded the animal could discriminate between these two objects based on the verbal command.
In addition, though, researchers said that dogs actually seem to be more receptive to gibberish words associated to a toy than when an owner would say a word of the toy they want. The researchers theorize that the dogs might show more response to a novel word because they actually sense their owners want them to comprehend, so they pay closer attention!
At the end of the day, the research seems to intimate that while spoken words in conjunction with rewards do seem to elicit response from our pups, they are looking for all the information you can provide them in order to determine how to best please you (because that is really what they want in the end).