Your Dog Understands That Words Stand for Certain Objects, New Research Shows

We all say certain words to our pets on a regular basis, and they’ll often have consistent responses to them. How much do they actually understand the words themselves, though? A new study of dogs’ brain activity shows they may understand what the words themselves stand for.

Research recently published in Current Biology aimed to see if dogs have object word knowledge, which the team says has not been identified in any non-human animals. To conduct the study, the researchers used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure dogs’ brain activity when presented with certain objects and then either a matched or mismatched word for them. They found that there were different brain patterns in both situations. The team says this provides the first neural evidence of object word knowledge – or the concept that certain words stand for certain things – in a non-human animal.

Marianna Boros, first author from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, explains, “Dogs do not only react with a learned behavior to certain words. They also don’t just associate that word with an object based on temporal contiguity without really understanding the meaning of those words, but they activate a memory of an object when they hear its name.”

To better understand dogs’ knowledge of words, the team had 18 dog owners say words for toys that their dogs knew, and then they either showed their pup the toy that matched the word or one that didn’t. This happened while an EEG measured the dogs’ brain activity. The readings showed that their brain patterns differed when the toy didn’t match the word and when it did, as if a mental image popped up, much like it does for humans.

This difference was more pronounced when it was a word the dogs knew well, and even those without an extensive vocabulary had the same reactions to words with which they were familiar.

The findings suggest that though your dog may be a creature of few words, it doesn’t mean they don’t know what words they can’t actually say mean.

Lilla Magyari, study co-author from Eötvös Loránd University and University of Stavanger, explains, “Your dog understands more than he or she shows signs of. Dogs are not merely learning a specific behavior to certain words, but they might actually understand the meaning of some individual words as humans do.”

Going forward, the researchers would like to see if other animals have this capacity and also why more dogs don’t demonstrate this understanding if they have it.