Q. I keep reading that a smart dog can learn up to 250 words and that some dogs can learn many more than that. Does that mean they know words but just don’t have the vocal chords to speak?
Bayshore, New York
Dear Mr. Linden,
A. Not exactly. Dogs don’t understand human language per se because they don’t have a language center in their brains. What they are picking up when you teach them specific words are the sounds rather than the actual words. Those sounds then become cues for various behaviors.
Think of the sound of a dinner bell or the beeps you hear when something has finished heating in the microwave, or the ring tone you use on your phone. The tinkling of the bell lets you know to come to the table to eat; the beeps emanating from the microwave signal that the food is pleasingly warm or hot, and the phone ringing indicates that someone wants to communicate with you. None of them is a word, but each imparts a clear meaning of its own. We know one family whose dogs know that the song played during Final Jeopardy on TV means it’s almost time for their evening walk. When the notes start, they come into the family room for their leashes, understanding that they will go out very shortly. In other words, make or play or say a sound often enough, and a dog will learn the behavior, or outcome, with which it’s associated.
The easiest sounds for dogs to learn are single-syllable words — chunky rather than lilting sounds that stand out: Sit, Stay, Down, Off, Come. It’s easy for canines to differentiate among them. Long words that are rather melodic, perhaps ending in a vowel, are more difficult for dogs to pick up.
With that in mind, when you want your dog to do something, just give the cue: “Sparky, come.” If you start trying to “explain” things to the dog out of frustration — “Sparky, I don’t have time for this. I told you not today. I have to pick up Lucy at school today, so we can’t take the long walk” — all he’s apt to get are “Lucy” and “walk.” He might even think the two of you are going to meet up with Lucy by taking the longer route he wants.
A final note: While dogs don’t understand words, they do understand tone. If you like to talk soothingly or enthusiastically to your dog while stroking him or otherwise treating him kindly, he’ll get the message. He may not be able to learn English with Rosetta Stone, but he knows the universal language of emotion and how it’s expressed.