Myth 17: My dog understands what I say

Updated November 29, 2020

Listen to anyone who owns a dog (myself included) and you will hear them talking to their dogs in complex sentences. But what do dogs hear?

If you asked the speaker they would probably admit that logically their dog really couldn’t have understood. All the same, I think deep down we DO think they mostly understand us. Perhaps they do, but if so it is truly an amazing thing. It’s more likely they can just pick out key words, and add other information from our body language and especially our gestures.

I believe it’s when you see it done in another language that it truly becomes clear both what dogs are doing and how amazing it is that they pick up anything at all. I’ve looked at hundreds of videos of people training their dogs in unfamiliar languages and the dominant impression is that these dogs (and I) are helped when they can see clear signals in the body language of the owner.

In order to make your voice understood, it’s important to make clear commands that the dog can separate out from the other words. In the first video below, clients of ours show this being done, and even to the person unflamiliar with Chinese, you can hear the command. Therefore, so can the dog.

In the second video (found on youtube Japan), I don’t think you can hear the commands at all, and therefore, it’s a lot harder for the dog to work out what is wanted. The same goes for us. Isn’t it easier to put yourself in the dog’s shoes when you and the dog are both hearing the same foreign language?

I suspect there is a lot more going on with body language to get the point across.

Both of these videos demonstrate dogs having an understanding of a language better than us. I don’t think after you’ve seen them you’ll ever take a dog’s understanding for granted again.

What is your impression of these videos? Please tell us if you get a different response. The visit our Dog Training page for advice on some great local dog trainers.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.