Do Dogs & Cats Understand a Human Talking to Them?

by Simon Foden Google
    Dogs learn what we want them to do through association.

    Dogs learn what we want them to do through association.

    Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

    Pet owners all over the world use words to get their pets to perform commands. Although they can’t speak in the human sense, dogs and cats do display varying degrees of understanding of our language. They associate our verbal sounds with actions. One might assume that dogs have the edge in the language stakes, but cats have been proven to be pretty wordy too, when they feel like it.

    Learning the Lingo

    Dogs and cats actually understand the meaning of individual words. They learn what we mean through a process called operant conditioning. Call a dog’s name then give him a treat and he’ll soon learn that the sound of his name has a positive consequence. The sound is a cue. By using verbal sounds before our pet performs an action, then issuing a treat after the action, they’ll soon learn that reacting in a certain way to a certain sound has a positive outcome.

    You Talking to Me?

    A study by the University of Tokyo in 2013 found that cats, despite appearances and behavior that might suggest otherwise, can tell when they’re being spoken to. Cat owners may believe that their words are falling on deaf ears, but the study proved that cats do respond to their owner’s voice, even when the owner can’t be seen. Dog owners are a little more secure in the knowledge that their dogs know when they’re being spoken to, with verbal commands playing an integral part in dog training. Dogs can understand up 160 words.

    Multilingual Pooches

    Not only can cats and dogs understand what we’re saying, they’re entirely capable of understanding more than one language. For example, dogs may be required to understand commands in more than one language if they are to have more than one handler. In military scenarios, dogs are required to understand commands in more than one language. In fact, many English-speaking handlers elect to teach their dogs in German because the language contains more hard consonants than English. Using different languages is also a neat way to differentiate between work and play for the dog.

    It’s Not What You Said...

    It’s how you said it. Cats and dogs don’t actually understand the semantic content in a word. They simply hear a sound and know that a certain response is required. Animals respond more to the energy of the person speaking than to what they’re saying. You could yell “good boy” in an angry tone and your dog would think you’re mad at him, or you could say “naughty girl” while holding a piece of fish and your cat would think she’s being rewarded.

    Photo Credits

    • Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

    About the Author

    Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.

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