On average, how many words can a dog learn?

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Dog psychologists say that dogs can learn up to 250 words, if the owner can persevere without getting angry, upset, impatient, frustrated or anything else that could put a negative spin on the activity.

We often forget that dogs are animals and, as such, they don’t think and learn the way humans do. In fact, many of us give animals human qualities and emotions (which could be wishful thinking on our part), refusing to believe that the dog is really only concerned about things like food and attention.

Dogs don’t have the capacity to process a thought, but they are very responsive to their owner’s feelings, emotions, behavior and patterns. In fact, a strong case could be made that most dogs know the word “treat,” but only because they know the routine of getting one every time they do something that pleases their owner. They might even be able to herd their owners to the area where the treats are kept, but they only know that because they’ve observed their owner’s pattern of getting a treat from a particular area—not thinking, “Oh, the treats are in the second shelf, left hand side of the kitchen cabinet.”

Dogs also learn by observing body language, hand gestures, eye movements, and by repetition. For instance, a dog will probably understand that when the owner gets the leash it means a walk is soon to come; she doesn’t understand that a leash is a device used on her neck to control her movement.

Here are some guidelines for helping your dog learn words:

  • Use repetition. Say the word over and over again so she’s familiar with it.
  • Create a pattern in your dog’s mind; for instance, if you want her to learn the word “leash,” say the word and then immediately take her out. Repeat it as often as needed until she understands.
  • Use short words. For instance, say “down.” Don’t say things like “please sit down.” Don’t use complete sentences, narrations, reasoning or words with too many syllables.
  • Remember, dogs learn by observing, so use hand gestures and eye movements, rather than just tone of voice.
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