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How Dogs Understand Language

At some point in our lives, many of us have probably asked the question “What is my dog thinking?” It's only natural to want to understand our furry companions better so we can keep them happy and healthy. Maybe this idea is what brought you here to start your pets learning journey with hijoey. And part of the foundation of training your pup to communicate with you is understanding how the canine brain learns and processes language. 

You may be surprised to learn that dogs' brains share many similarities with humans. Dogs are able to process speech very quickly, similar to the timeframe it takes us to do the same. And like us, they also have some of the same structures, like the left and right sides of the brain. However, when it comes to understanding the contents of the speech, canine minds are not on par with the adult human mind. When it comes to thinking and learning, they are actually more like babies. 

As young human minds develop, their capacity for processing new information is very limited. You would slowly teach a baby to understand language by showing them a few common objects or actions and the word associated with them. This is the same way many of us train our dogs, we show them an object/action and give them a word(s) to go with it. We repeat this process until they show us that they recognize the two stimuli are related. You continue the process again with more objects and phrases. But where a baby would continue to grow and develop the brain capacity to hold an extensive vocabulary, studies have found that the average dog can only retain about 89 words/phrases. This number can vary depending on training techniques and genetic factors like breed, but don't expect your dog to start blogging anytime soon. 

Another key piece to how your puppy thinks is what conversational factors they place the most importance on. Dogs do not have detailed phonetic listening skills as we do. If you tell your dog to “sip” instead of telling them to “sit” they won't go looking for the nearest beverage. Instead, they will sit because they are not able to differentiate between words that are similar in sound. 

Dogs rely on other factors like context, gestures, and tone of voice to understand what you’re trying to tell them. If you scowl and yell when you tell your dog that you love them very much, they will not get the message and will be rather terrified. Using a positive tone when speaking to your pet is crucial to the communication process. In one study, researchers used an MRI to monitor dogs' brain function while being spoken to. They found that the left side of the brain processed the meaning of the word, similar to how our brains do. But the right side of the brain would only light up when using a positive or negative tone instead of a neutral one. This demonstrates the importance of intonation in how dogs comprehend what we say to them. It’s important to be conscious of your body language and tone when training a dog to help them understand what you’re trying to accomplish. A positive attitude both inside and out will make the training process go all the more smoothly.