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How Dogs Learn Words, and How Many Words Can Dogs Learn?

Updated on April 20, 2016
Solaras profile image

Barbara Fitzgerald is an AKC Breeder of Merit and the author of a column, "Conversations with Champions," for the BCSA magazine,Borderlines.

How many Words Can Dogs Learn?

The average dog can learn as many as 150 unique words, a fairly substantial vocabulary beyond sit, stay and come!

In fact, research with several border collies has brought those canine vocabulary numbers up beyond 400 words. And a border collie named Chaser has learned the names of 1022 objects, which he can differentiate and fetch on command. There appears to be no upper limit in Chaser's vocabulary lessons, as he continues to add words to his lexicon.

In the wake of such impressive results, researchers Emile van der Zee, Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills sought to determine the presence of a key feature of human word comprehension in canine learning.

In their research article, Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?, the researchers sought to determine if shape bias existed in dogs as it does in humans. Surprisingly it does in a very delicious way!

How Dogs Learn The Meaning of Words

Experiments with human 2 year olds, have shown a "shape bias" exists in the learning of new words. Simply put, once the child associates a name with an object, it then generalizes the shape of that object to other objects with the same shape.

For example, a child taught the word ball, when presented with a group of new objects, will seek other spherical shapes regardless of their size and texture. Children associate ball with round; do dogs learn the same way?

Using a 5 year old border collie named Gable, the researchers used random words, such as DAX or GNARK to create a word association with an object.

Once the word-object association was made, researchers began to replace the familiar object with new object choices. When presented with new objects to retrieve, Gable sought objects that were similar in size to the original object, without regard to the shape of the object.

As Gable became more familiar with the word-object mapping, he replaced the size preference with an association of similar texture of the object. As Gable better understood the word-object relationship, he relied on how the object felt in his mouth to determine the best choice for retrieval.

This rock feels nice in her mouth!
This rock feels nice in her mouth! | Source

Dogs Do Learn Differently Than Humans!

I am reminded of a scene in the film, Best In Show, when the toy, Busy Bee, goes missing. The pet shop owner offers up a toy similar in size and shape to the panicked dog owner. She rejects the new toy as it is obviously not a bee, but is instead a fish. The pet shop owner tries to convince her to purchase the toy stating, "I think the dog is responding to the shape and strips on the toy."

Yes and no. The dog would respond to the similar size and plush material, but not the stripes or shape of the toy.

As a practical application of the research, those of you needing to replace a treasured toy should seek toys of similar size, texture and firmness. Ultimately, the dog is responding to how the toy feels in his mouth.

How this research applies to dog training is an interesting question. Vision is the primary sense of humans.

Therefore it makes sense that we would rely on object shape in determining associations. Scent is the primary sense of dogs, hearing is secondary and sight tertiary; scent and sound were not presented as differentiating factors for Gable.

Dog Training Tips

In real world dog training, scent and sound are both factors in our dog's learning. The smell and sound of treats and objects are likely to be confounding factors for our dogs, unnoticed by humans in our sight driven world.

If you find yourself experiencing a brick wall in your training, if your dog seems to be stubbornly missing the point, consider that he may be responding to another aspect of the situation. He may have made an association that seems correct to him based on scent or sound. When you seem not to be on the same page, take a broader view of the situation, and perhaps change objects or locations.

Click here to review the research article Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important? The online article at PLOS One also includes videos of Gable's training sessions. Enjoy!

1000 Word Vocabulary!

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    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      This is a fascinating article, and I will check out the link. I also hope you write more about the intelligence of dogs and what they can learn from human language. Voted Up, Useful, Awesome and Interesting! Shared.

      Jaye

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Your photo of that absolutely gorgeous Border Collie, attracted me to your hub....and I'm glad, because it is interesting and very educational.

      I have a 4 yr. old male Border Collie.....His breed's intelligence is beyond belief. I know they're rated #1 in the category of intelligence and trainablity...but people who have had no experience with a BC, have no idea the extreme level of their brains.....Mine scares me sometimes....I swear he understands not only English, but Spanish too.

      They even interpret their master's movements and facial expressions.

      I look forward to more of your fascinating hubs on dogs...UP+++

    • Lizolivia profile image

      Lizolivia 4 years ago from Central USA

      Well written. Smell, sound, texture then vision makes sense. Reversing perspectives does wonders for understanding.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Interesting hub, Solaras. It validates what I've learned over the years, especially regarding aroma, texture, and vision. We know that aroma and texture are what determines the palatability of food and treats for dogs, and that they don't pick up on inanimate objects as well as we do, but the whole realm of the dog's senses is an interesting area to explore, in my opinion. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • Solaras profile image
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      Solaras 4 years ago

      Thank you for the positive feedback. fpherj48 - the border collie in the picture is my first BC, Smitty. He is 9 years old now, and I think he was 7 when this photo was taken. I have some BCs that are intuitive thinkers; he is a very logical dog. You can watch him deduce where we might have hidden a toy. The intuitive thinkers do watch your face intensely, and try to anticipate your next movement or command.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      OMG..."Smitty," is exquisite....looks young and healthy at 7!! My boy's name is "Taz" (Tazmanian Devil)....He was already named by the breeder and his name was on all his papers.....and we liked the name anyway. I did write a hub on this breed, but I'm sure I don't know nearly as much as you do....

      He keeps us young, that's for sure!! LOL

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      That's very fascinating. I think we often underestimate the learning ability of dogs. Voted up!

    • agilitymach profile image

      agilitymach 4 years ago

      This is an interesting hub with some interesting research behind it. I, too, voted up and interesting and useful!!! Good job on one of your first hubs!!!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Very interesting hub! The order of the senses dog use to understand just makes sense. These are things that I wouldn't have thought about. I am going to have to use this information on my Siberian Husky and Labrador Retriever. I love hubs on animals, and this one is exceptional! Voting up, useful, interesting and sharing! :)

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      Very interesting hub. My Old English Sheepdog seems to know lots of words. It's good to get some insight on how she learns. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      This was very helpful. My friend has been looking for a specific toy for her dog-an exact replica of the kind of toy he likes. I like what you wrote "Ultimately, the dog is responding to how the toy feels in his mouth." This may help her find a similar toy if she looks for one with the same shape and material, even though it's not the same exact. Thank you!

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Thanks for visiting epbooks. Each of my dogs has his or her own favorite style of toy. Boomer likes big plush stuffed pheasants and ducks, Luna likes floppy stuffing free toys etc.. I am the only who who cares what the look like. I do like to see cute toys lying around the house though! My current favorite is a long stuffing free cardinal; it looks so pretty in the mouth of a black and white BC. Luna likes it too.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      oh, I know what you mean. Each of my three dogs has their favorite toy. It seems my smallest one (40 pounds) like's the big toys that are almost the size of her, while my 80 pound golden likes the tiny toys!

    • Solaras profile image
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      Solaras 3 years ago

      That's fully about the Golden! My puppies are always very pleased with themselves to be able to carry large light plush toys.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I could watch them play with their toys forever- like- they are so proud and have to show them off. They get this little twinkle in their eye. It's awesome.

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Exactly! Boomer won't greet me when I come home without a toy in his mouth. My front door is glass, so I can see him panicking to find a toy to show to me. Sometimes he settles for a leaf that came in on one of their tails. Too funny!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      That's how my pups are - always have to greet with a toy. And yes-I love when they "panick!"

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Since I read this hub the first time, I've also read the book "THE GENIUS OF DOGS: How Dogs are Smarter than you Think", by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. The research it details is incredibly interesting, but not at all surprising to dog owners who believe (make that "know") their dogs understand them!

      Jaye

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Hi Jaye - I will have to take a look at that book. It's amazing how well tuned dogs are into understanding us and figuring out how to please us.

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 3 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      I love this! I have miniature Dachshunds, and they associate words with objects. I taught them how to come to a certain whistle. Also, open a bag of shredded cheese, and they come running, even if they are on the other end of the house! A great read, and great for those trying to understand their pups. Thanks for sharing!

      Votes and Shares! :-)

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      This is really interesting, and it does make perfect sense now that I think about it. Since dogs have different senses that they use more, they will use those to think and categorize. Voted up!

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Thanks Millionaire Tips! I am always amazed when I try to understand the odd things that my dogs do - it usually turns out that they have made some connection based the cause and effect of my actions that makes perfect sense once I see it from their perspective.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Hi Solaras. I have friends who insist that dogs respond to tone of voice more than specific words. My experience has been different, however. I can whisper, laugh or call an instruction and get the appropriate response each time. I also talk to my dogs in sentences instead of single words. The dogs seem fine about me stretching their vocabulary, lol.

      This was an interesting hub. Voted up. :)

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Hi Longtimemother - Yes, I think they are so tuned into us that they take cues from all of the above. Tone of voice, words sentences body language and just how we feel emotionally all impacts how the dog will respond to us.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 3 years ago from USA

      Our last dog Abby could understand almost anything we said. Our new dog Beau took claim to a toy we had here as soon as he got here. None of the other dogs ever wanted it. Now he panics if he loses it. We bought him a new one and he still wanted the old dirty one. We finally had to get rid of the old one, so he'd play with the new one. Must be he didn't like the smell of it. It just proves your theory.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 3 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      My daughters dog is amazing as far as understanding her commands. When it's her bedtime, Lisa tells her to go nite-nite and she leaves the living room and walks slowly into the bedroom where her own little bed is waiting for her on the floor, pillow and all. She lays her head on the pillow - so cute. This is only one of about a dozen or more commands she responds to.

      Your hub is so interesting and I'm sharing it all over the place and pinning it as well. Big votes up and thanks. ~ Audrey

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Thanks Audrey - I want your Daughter's dog! Red Rover Red Rover - send her right over!!

    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 3 years ago from India

      Wow I had no idea that dogs could actually pick up so many words. i always thought they picked up more from the intonation than from the actual sentences one spoke to them. i know one word that my puppy definitely knew - walk!

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Hi chashmere - yes, they can learn many words and signals from our behavior. Dogs watch us much more closely that any other mammal I can think of, monkeys included. Domestic dog's survival depend on their association with humans, so they are remarkable in tune with our thoughts, commands and emotions. Lovely, darling creatures!!

    • T-X-2 profile image

      Tammy 3 years ago from Louisiana

      I totally agree with this article. Dogs can understand so much more than people think. I have seen it often with my dogs. There have been times when they surprised me with how much they understood.

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Hi T-X-2 - they may be psychic as well when it comes to knowing when you plan to give them a treat or go for a walk! Mine are always anticipating.

    • natural holistic profile image

      D. Lemaire 3 years ago from Arizona

      People often don't believe me when I tell them my Corgi understands me. when I say "It's time to go to sleep" he will go to his bed, when I say "go outside" he goes to the door, when I say "go pee" he will pee on command when we are walking haha. "eat your food" and he starts darting around like a rocket because he knows it's food time. etc.. they understand alright!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Having grown up with dogs and also having them most of my married life, I can assure skeptics that dogs do understand much of what we say. They also take cues without our talking about what we are likely to do that day. If I start wearing certain clothes, they know that I am likely to stay home and/or the reverse is also true depending upon my choices. They know when it is treat time and if we are not watching the clock...they let us know! Enjoyed your article and will pin it to my dogs board and also share it. Beautiful photo of your border collie!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      My Miniature Schnauzer is extremely smart: she know how to tell time, and understands many words and sentences!

      She watches me and knows exactly what I intend to do next.

      Good info here. Voted UP, etc.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting hub. It makes sense to link smell to shape when a dog learns words, as smell is its strongest sense. Your article has clearly shown the learning process in a way that is easy to understand and accept.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 2 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Did you see the segment about Chaser on 60 Minutes last night? Very interesting. Made me think our family has been missing out on fame and fortune. I've never tried counting the words Daisy (our yellow Lab) knows, but clearly she has an impressive vocabulary.

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 2 years ago

      Hi Susan Deppner - No missed 60 minutes last night. I was reliving the final season of Breaking Bad. I have seen him before, and he is an amazing dog. The more research they do on dogs, the more impressed I am with their ability to learn and the more I love the species. They are equivalent to 2-4 year old children in many of their abilities.

    • jtrader profile image

      jtrader 2 years ago

      How it feels in their mouths. That's interesting and makes sense. Thanks for sharing the info.

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 2 years ago

      Hi jtrader - Thanks for stopping by!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      dogs and cats are the same, they learn new words pretty fast than toddlers

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 2 years ago

      Hi Peachpurple - That must be why I have cats and dogs and skipped the children lol!

    • profile image

      calculus-geometry 14 months ago

      Besides breed, what other factors influence how many words a dog can learn?

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 14 months ago

      Hi Calculus-Geometry:

      I think the age that one starts training a puppy has a big influence on how much the puppy can absorb. The earlier the better; I believe it improves neuroplasticity for dogs as well as humans. Exposing a dog to new experiences, new people new training venues would also improve neuroplasticity as well as making a well socialized dog.

      Desire to please is another factor in a dogs ability to learn. Some dogs just are not that interested in pleasing their owners, while others live and breath to please them.

    • profile image

      calculus-geometry 14 months ago

      Thanks for your reply. I don't have any intuition for this but I was wondering if being an inside dog vs an outside dog had any effect, all other factors being equal. The rationale being that hanging around humans and human stuff more often makes dogs primed for human-style communication. And if that were true would it make sense for owners of primarily outside dogs to lower their expectations of how many words their dogs can learn? Again, I don't have good intuition for this so I thought I should ask an expert.

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 14 months ago

      C-G - My answer is: I don't know lol. I know many of the working herding dogs live outside as kennel dogs. Rather than learning words, many of them learn whistle calls and use those commands with their own instincts to work stock.

      I would be inclined to say that an outdoor working dog, that accompanies his master on farm chores and helps out as needed, may be the best candidate for learning words. If the farmer/rancher is not taciturn, then the dogs has an opportunity to learn animal names, equipment names, working terms etc...

    • norlawrence profile image

      Norma Lawrence 8 months ago from California

      Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      Nancy Mitchell 4 months ago from Bend, OR

      I'm constantly surprised at how many words our dog knows. If ever I use the word "sweater" in regular conversation with someone, she starts to slink away. That's because she once had a Christmas sweater and hated to wear it! She's the smartest dog I've ever had -- Lab and German shorthair. My sister-in-law had a border collie -- such a smart dog and always wanting to stay busy. Love that movie, "Best of Show,"-- so funny!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 months ago from San Diego California

      As a letter carrier, I frequently make observations about dogs, because I see dogs every day, some good, some bad. I had always thought that dogs rely primarily on scent for identification, but I'm pretty sure that vision is very important too. As an example, there are two small dogs behind a fence that have learned not to bark at me after two years of passing them every day. However, if I change the way I look, either by putting on my raincoat or taking off my helmet, they get confused and they bark. Vision is probably not their primary source of sensory input, but I think it is a tiebreaker when in doubt. When I speak to these same dogs in a reassuring manner, they recognize my voice and they stop barking. Two out of three senses in my favor means a danger does not exist.

      I have all kinds of dog stories. Believe it or not, most mailmen love dogs and most dogs love mailmen. Great article!

    • Solaras profile image
      Author

      Solaras 3 months ago

      My own dogs won't recognize me at times unless I speak to them. I see them standing there with their hackles starting to go up, trying to figure out friend or foe.

      I think the dogs are visually responding to an outline they expect from you. A raincoat or helmet changes your dimensions. I once read that UPS trucks had mufflers that made a noise that aggitated dogs. They retrofitted their trucks and the dogs became friendlier to the UPS men. Of course mine still hate them. lol

    • alicia54 profile image

      Stephanie James 6 weeks ago

      I like dogs. Thank you for this information.

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