Silvia Jay: Dogs - Behavior - Relationships

Brings out the best in your dog

A Case For Words

We all know dogs that make the connection between a word that is always used in the same context, and a certain event, subject or object that is relevant to them: Walk, leash, car, cookie, kitty, park…

But do dogs really understand the meaning of the word? Or do they pick up non-verbal cues at the same time and respond to that. 

There is increasingly more scientific evidence that dogs, indeed, are capable to comprehend words:

Chaser, a Border collie, who knows 1022 words, independently confirmed. 

Alexandra Horowitz, in “Inside of a Dog”, says that the sound we make carries meaning for our dog; that dogs have the cognitive ability to understand words they learned as important information for them. 

And Claudia Fugazza is an Italian scientist and trainer who does groundbreaking, and fascinating, work with dogs’ social learning abilities. She states that almost every dog she worked with was able to learn to distinguish between words.

Teaching in words is not just a theoretical concept. It has real life practical advantages: You are heard, you lower stress, and your dog stays attentive and learns better. Let's analyze that in detail. 

Words, unlike gestures, also work when your dog is NOT watching you. Dogs can split attention and still know you exist even if they don’t look at you. Yes, of course we want the pooch to offer eye contact a whole lot, but to expect that he completely blocks out every stimulus that is part of the world he lives in, and only fixates on the handler, is unrealistic and unfair. And whenever he doesn’t look at you, you’re out of luck with non-verbal signals. They are not received. 

Shock collar trainers press the transmitter to get their dog to reorient to them, and it might work, but you don't want to do that. Imagine if your partner, boss, or your child's teacher, would shock every time they want attention. Would that increase confidence and work attitude? Who would want to be with that person? Have a relationship? Truth is that it'd be very stressful, and is for the dog as well. 


Words are information, and information lowers stress. Christina Maslach, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, found that one of the strongest predictors for job related stress and burnout is a vacuum of information from the top down. In the human/dog relationship, you’re the top, so give helpful cues when the dog needs them. You could argue that information transfer can be non-verbal, and you’d be correct, but the thing is that we humans are a wordly species, and often more precise when we speak instructions.


When you use your voice in a supportive way, it becomes an emotional feel-good trigger and then, regardless what it is you say, it puts your dog at ease when he is nervous. 


Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods in “Genius of Dogs” state that several studies showed that talking while demonstrating a solution to a problem helps dogs pay attention and learn better. 

So babble away to keep your dog engaged and relaxed, but when you give a direct instruction, one word precision is best, spoken once, then giving the dog a chance to respond, but helping him if he doesn’t understand. 

Helping sometimes means adjusting the situation, but often repeating the word works. Repeating is okay, but verbal diarrhea isn’t. The difference is that with the former you give the dog a chance to think and act, and the latter is an irritating staccato-like: down-down-down-down…” or whatever it is you’re teaching.


You can also help with a gestural hint, so don’t shelve non-verbal communication altogether. Use your words, and your body, and your eyes to communicate. All is valuable social information for your dog.


If you want to use words and gestures, build cue/action awareness by connect a word and non-verbal signal with the specific behavior. The time between word and gesture should not be more than ½ second, but should not overlap. Whether you use the word or gesture first depends: When you teach a new behavior with luring, the gesture naturally comes before the word; when you capture a behavior, use the word first. 

The take-away message is that it is foolish to deny a species that has receptive human language skills the opportunity to learn words. Talk with your dog. It’s what many people already do anyway. That is how we are programmed. Now we have scientific evidence that it’s a good thing. 

The more you talk with purpose, the more sensitive your dog will be to your voice. He really is bilingual, and will get better the more you do it. He’ll soon listen for words he’s learned and are relevant to his life, and respond to them – and to you. 


New tips, articles and posts on behavior and relationship are published each month on my blog site. Stay tuned.