How Many Words Can Dogs Learn?

We don’t speak dog. We definitely don’t understand animal behavior. Dogs use a universal code to communicate with one another: body language, eye contact, vocal intonations, and intuition. Introducing dogs into human society has been a huge learning experience for both parties involved, but dogs have adapted well over the centuries from being village strays to becoming companions to performing in shows. Learning words has been an important factor in dogs’ lives.

A dog can recognize an average of 160 words. Some words are easier to learn than others; for example, “walk” is associated with something dogs like to do, whereas the command “sit” is harder because it is based on a learned behavior. Puppies learn fairly quickly that there is a reward for good behavior and will start to associate a word with a behavior desired by the owner. We all use some type of positive/negative and reward/punishment system to teach dogs to associate sounds (or words) with behaviors; this is called “operant conditioning.” Puppies learn that they receive treats when they do something the owner asks them to do, and they learn that the cookie is taken away from them when they do something that the owner does not want. Jean Cotes explains this in his Walking in Harmony program.

How we say words makes it easier for dogs to pick up on what is being taught to them. Tone, duration, and sound elicit different types of behavior. The emotional inflection of sentences spoken to dogs plays a big part in how they learn words. Watch how people talk to their dogs. Their sentences usually have a melody or mood to them; the phrases “do you want,” “go get the ball,” and “you rolled in poo!” are examples. High tones will excite the dogs; low tones will not capture their attention as readily. Drawing out a word emphasizes attention to the word: “staaaaaaay” will cause the dog to slow or stop what it is doing. Clicking and ticking sounds and quick, explosive utterances capture the dog’s attention. These sounds are good to use when dogs are off leash and at a distance from the owner.

“Words” is a relative term; dogs learn sounds. Dogs are like sponges when it comes to learning. They have an unrelenting drive to please humans. Rewarding them for good behavior becomes a quick and easy way to teach them. I’ve known people who have taught their dogs words in German and English (bilingual dogs!) and others who have taught dogs the command “roll over” but have conditioned them to know that means to sit. The earlier you start talking to your dog, the better your dog will be able to comprehend your words.

As far as dogs learning words, some can even talk! Many people have watched the YouTube video of the dog that says “I love you.” Some dogs even sing. I’ve spent many nights listening to my dog joining in on a husky session of singing while in agility class. Of course, they don’t know what they’re saying, but they learn sounds. They are watching and learning from our every move. What other animals have been at our sides for centuries, gaining valuable trust and providing companionship? Needless to say, dogs are smart, awesome creatures.

About The Author

Lynn Albrow

Lynn Albrow has two dogs, both Canine Good Citizens and (TDI) Therapy Dog International certified: Lola, a Mcnab (Border Collie Cattle dog mix) and Cole, a Border Lab. Lynn’s passion in training got started when in obedience class with Lola. She currently participates in Agility trials. Her dogs volunteer at one of the local retirement communities where Lola usually puts on a show and Cole has a more relax and soothing approach for therapy.

6 Comments

  • Jean Cote

    Jean Cote

    Reply Reply September 21, 2014

    Hi Lynn,

    While reading your article I could not help but think about how my dogs will come to me after hearing any of my dogs name … that is partially due to me calling out the wrong name during our recall games.

    Sometimes I would call out “ONYX” while training Chase, although that was totally by accident, it nevertheless taught each one of my dog to come to me regardless of what name I call out. 🙂

    • Lynn

      Reply Reply September 21, 2014

      Yes . My dogs are Cole and Lola and if I want them both to come to me sometimes I will call “cola” and both come running with smiles .

  • Marianne Cottee

    Reply Reply September 22, 2014

    My HuskyxMalamutes Chester & Eski have learnt ‘Steeaadddye, whoa!’ To slow then stop. Chester knows sit down wait stay come, ‘woof’ for please.
    Also gee, yaw, go-by and walk-on. About turn too.
    Eski knows about three words! But she’s only been with us a week (rescue/rehome)
    They are coming to me at home by name, by whistle or by a metallic Bosun’s call.

    • Jean Cote

      Jean Cote

      Reply Reply September 25, 2014

      That reminds me of the good old days when I used to skijor with my dogs. They’re a bit older now so it would be streneous exercise for them, but back then I taught them “left” and “right” and “on by”, and of course “go-go-go” for when I wanted them to go faster. Worked great after a few weeks of training. 🙂

  • connie marzullo

    Reply Reply September 22, 2014

    Jean, I just got these two wonderful little spirits. They r brother & sister, same parents. The two r Shih Tzus. Daisy is four and 9 lbs. and Carson is five and 19 lbs. Daisy is taking longer to learn tricks. I do reward with a little treat, especially used for training. Daisy sits, stays (which I say that word very slow), up and dances in a circle (she looks like the little dogs in the circus). I cannot take credit for the dancing, she just started that when I said up. She must have learned from previous owner. I got them at the end of July. Carson is a different story (true shih Tzu), very smart, Alpha dog. He stays, sit, gives paw, up and down. I really feel blessed with these wonderful BFF’s.
    I always read your emails, thanks for sending them!

    • Jean Cote

      Jean Cote

      Reply Reply September 25, 2014

      Hi Connie, how come one dog is so much heavier/bigger than the other if they are from the same parents?

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