Can dogs understand words?

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Some dogs can understand up to 250 words, and while there’s no doubt that dogs are intelligent, they don’t understand word meanings the same way people do.

Dogs can associate words with certain sounds and gestures, which are then associated with an action. For instance, many dog owners refer to dog food, and sometimes treats, as “cookies.” This means that to the dog, when you say “cookies,” it can mean either running to the feeding bowl or to the place where the treats are kept. Sometimes the dog may even perform a specific trick before getting a treat. In this case, when the owner says “cookies,” the dog may automatically perform.

If after hearing this, you’re wondering if your dog can really understand you, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Dogs are all about sub-text, rather than just text; they check out other dogs by the sounds, smells and ear and tail positions, and they’re observing you just as closely. Even if your body language is very subtle, such leaning forward or backward, your dog is noticing and interpreting. They’ll listen to how you say a word, rather than understanding the word’s exact meaning. They’ll quickly learn how to determine your mood and what body movements lead to play, treats or petting, as well as the ones that result in a reprimand!

Some dogs are better learners than others. In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren, PhD, a scientist and psychologist who is recognized for his best-selling series of books on dogs, asked more than 200 dog-obedience judges to rank 110 breeds based on their intelligence. Border collies, Poodles, Retrievers, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers ranked highest for learning, while the Borzoi, Chow Chow, Bulldog and Basenji Afghan Hound scored lowest on the intelligence scale.

The dividing line when it comes to questions of canine intelligence seems to be the age of the breed. Recent breeds such as Collies and Retrievers have been bred for years to do what modern humans want them to do, as opposed to breeds that were bred for things like hunting mice in medieval times.

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