Video: Do Dogs Understand Words?

Watch the latest Alpha Paw episodes with host Bernie Zilio as she tackles your pet parent questions, along with our board of pet experts. You can watch the video and read the transcript below!

The Transcript

Bernie Zilio
Your dog probably understands “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “don’t eat that!”…even though they pretend to not understand that last one…but do dogs really understand our words or just our intonation? Let’s bark about it…

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Welcome back to Alpha Paw, your destination for everything dog. I’m Bernie Zilio and I’m on a mission to answer every doggone question you’ve ever had about your fur babies and today we are answering a question every dog parent aches to know: whether our dogs can truly understand what we say.

I’m sure we all have anecdotal evidence of our pups understanding our whispers or words that we say in different tones and intonations that may lead us to believe that they know more than we may give them credit for, but the science actually also supports this!

The Proof That Dogs Understand Words!

A few years ago, scientists set out to discover how much our dogs really understand of what we say to them. And what they found was so astounding, that it was published in the prestigious journal, Science. So you know it was legit. Basically they trained thirteen dogs to lay still in an MRI scanner. Ok, I’m sorry, but if you have a dog, you know that’s a feat in itself!

I can’t even get my dog, Pod, to sit still for more than a minute or two, let alone an entire MRI scan. This study is already blowing my mind. Alright back to the science. So the researchers used an MRI scanner to see what happened in these canines’ brains when they were spoken to. What they found was that dogs actually process language in a very similar way to humans.

Their right brain was responsible for emotion, while the left hemisphere of their noggin was all about processing the meaning of what they were experiencing. The researchers then monitored how their brains responded to phrases like “good boy” and “well done,” in both a positive intonation and then a neutral intonation.

They also monitored how their brains lit up when hearing words that most likely didn’t have any meaning to them, like the word “however,” also said in both a positive intonation and a more neutral one. So are you ready for what they found? The dogs’ left brain, the side responsible for processing meaning, was activated when hearing words that carried meaning to them– “good boy” and “well done”– in both a positive AND neutral intonation.

But it was not activated when hearing words that didn’t have any meaning to them. This finding indicates that dogs do in fact understand our words! Now as expected, the right side of the brain, the one associated with emotion, was activated when they heard positive intonations, for both words and phrases they understood and for words that didn’t carry any meaning to them at all.

Positive Words Cause A Noticeable Change In Dogs’ Brains

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. When phrases like “good boy” were coupled with positive intonations, both hemispheres lit up and the reward center of the brain was also activated.

This is important to understand while training our pups, because while saying “yes!” or “good girl or good boy” is effective, since they know those words, saying it in an excited tone will activate their reward centers and have the same effect of other pleasurable sensations like eating food or getting a good pet in.

Final Words

So in conclusion, our dogs are geniuses, and how you say something is just as important as what you say. Sounds like our dogs are pretty similar to humans. My theories have been confirmed.

Does your dog understand what you say? Do you change your tone for certain phrases? Let us know in the comments section down below. Again I’m Bernie Zilio and this is Alpha Paw, be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss a single doggone episode and we’ll see you next time!