Say What? Article in The Bark

The BarkProbably most of you are aware of the fabulous dog magazine “The Bark”.  Each issue is filled with informative articles, ads for interesting and useful products, and the pictures alone are worth a subscription! We have a subscription here at Dawg House, so if you’d like to borrow a copy, let us know. Plus, their motto is “Dog is my Co-pilot”….enough said.

The Winter 2012 Issue (most recent) had a fascinating article about what our words mean to dogs.

  “This is not your food! Don’t even think about eating it. This … is … not … your … food.” What do our words mean to dogs? Not that I’m about to stop speaking to dogs anytime soon, but I do wonder what my daily utterances signify to Millie, Piper, Upton and Finnegan, the dogs I converse with on a regular basis. Do I sound like a cross between Charlie Brown’s teacher and Gary Larson’s “What Dogs Hear” cartoon? Are we on the same page, or even in the same book?

I set out on a quest to explore dogs and their understanding of human language. What do we think dogs understand? A lot, according to a study by Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest. Thirty-seven owners provided a list of 430 different utterances that they thought their dogs knew, with each owner providing an average of 30 phrases.

The article goes on to describe the study that was done with 7 different companion dogs (Rico, Chaser, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy + Betsy) including their propensity for language.  Understanding the names for objects, verbs, and even “fast mapping”, which is a brain function that children accomplish during their development.  If the dog knows the name for 6 of 7 objects and you mention the 7th, not only do they draw the conclusion that you are stating the name for the unknown object, they also remember and are able to transfer this name into long term memory.

“But life is not only about knowing the names of one’s stuffies and Frisbees. Humans often use verbs such as come, sit, down and off to get dogs to alter their behavior. After controlling for outside contextual cues, researchers found that dogs could still understand that specific words map to specific physical actions. Chaser showed an incredible amount of flexibility with actions — performing “take,” “paw” and “nose” toward different objects.

“That’s just training,” you might say, but this suggests that some dogs show a cognitively advanced skill where actions are understood as independent from objects. Reid and Pilley found that Chaser does not interpret “fetch sock” as one single word, like “fetchsock.” Instead, she can perform a number of different actions flexibly toward a number of different objects. Daniela Ramos, a veterinary behaviorist in São Paulo, discovered that a mutt named Sofia could also differentiate object names from action commands, suggesting these dogs attend to the individual meaning of each word. “

This is not to say that training and the method with which we teach our dogs language doesn’t play into the end result.  Patricia McConnell finds that “Word learning might depend upon how words are first introduced. The guardians who explicitly differentiate words, teaching, ‘Get your Greenie! Get your ball,’ often have the dogs with big vocabularies. On the other hand, my own dog Willie was given verbal cues for years that stood for actions rather than objects. When I tried to teach him that words could refer to objects he was completely confused.”

The question continues to arise whether your pup understands the words you use as intended, or if context determines your dogs reaction to whatever term you are trying to get across. In addition, tone and prosody influence the interpretation of the dictionary definition.

If you are interested in reading the whole article, you can go to .



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s