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Dog Tales

Watch what you say around your pooch. He just might understand.

By John Cadley


I wish researchers would stop researching. Extrapolating from the rate of new discoveries being made every day, in 14 years, three months, four days, 17 minutes and 23 seconds we’ll know everything there is to know—and then everybody in the entire world will be just like my brother-in-law, who already knows everything. Or thinks he does. The latest research—and all research is the latest; if it’s old research it’s the research that’s been discredited by the latest research—tells us that dogs understand words. You may not think that’s news, but I’m not talking about “catch,” “fetch” and “heel.” I’m talking about animals with 200-word vocabularies that can learn and remember words as well as a human 3-year-old. If they had opposable thumbs they’d be texting instead of barking. And that’s my point: Any research that proves dogs and toddlers are smarter than I am is not something I really care to know about.

But I do know. How could I not know? We live in an information-saturated society where you know things you don’t want to know and don’t even know you know. It seeps in through your pores. How do I know the chancellor of Germany likes plum cake? I don’t know.

This is what happened with the dog thing. Somebody asked me if dogs are smarter than cats. Without thinking I said, “The average dog can understand 165 words. Cats only know about 30.” I looked it up to see if I was right. I was. At that point I figured if I knew something I didn’t know I knew, I should find out how I knew it. So I started doing my own research on dog research, of which there is quite a bit. Lots of studies, tests and dog brain MRIs to see how dogs learn words. The answer is—pretty much the way humans do. They may even do it better. If my brother-in-law knows 165 words I’d be surprised.

Some of these mutts are truly uncanny canines. There was, for instance, a collie named Rico who was sort of a celebrity in the dog world. He could identify up to 200 objects by name. Researchers then asked: Could Rico identify an object he didn’t know? To find out, they placed 20 objects that Rico knew by name in a room, plus one he’d never seen before. They spoke the unfamiliar object’s name to Rico—which he was hearing for the first time—and told him to find it among all the others. He did. Apparently, Rico used the process of elimination to figure out the new name had to be for the one object he didn’t know. A lot of 3-year-olds can’t do that. My brother-in-law couldn’t do it.

Any research that proves dogs and toddlers are smarter than I am is not something I really care to know about.

Skeptics think it’s just your tone of voice that dogs understand. Call Fido an “idiot” in a happy, chirpy tone and he’ll wag his tail and lick your face, right? Actually, no. Because dogs process speech like humans, they know when you’re not being sincere. That’s why a dog gives you that cute little cocked-head look. It’s his way of saying, “You’re making a complete fool of yourself with that ridiculous doggy talk and I’m the idiot? Really?”

Abstract concepts are another matter. Yes, dogs can learn the names for concrete objects, but there’s nothing to suggest they understand words like “honesty” and “courage.” Tell a dog she’s getting a “treat” and she sits up and begs. Tell her you “love” her and you get a blank stare. She doesn’t get it. Or maybe she does and she’s saying, “Don’t tell me you love me, show me. Fork over the treat.” 

Apparently, it all comes down to what we mean by “understand.” Does your dog understand that when you throw a stick he should retrieve it? Yes. Does he know the reason you’re standing in the backyard on a Saturday afternoon throwing sticks is because your wife said to make yourself useful and playing with the dog is more fun than cleaning out the garage? Probably not.

So fine—dogs understand words. Does that really make them smarter than me, as I facetiously suggested earlier? Of course not. They know 200 words. I know at least 300—even more with a dictionary. Besides, I don’t need a dog to make me feel superior. That’s what my brother-in-law is for.