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Do our pets understand us?

Do our pets understand us?

'Just look at him – he understands every word we’re saying!' It’s a boast we often hear from doting dog owners, but how much do our canine companions and their feline friends really comprehend?

Scientists have been studying pets’ language learning ability for decades, with some remarkable discoveries. One of the first dogs to wow researchers with his word skills was Rico, a Border Collie from Germany. He gained international fame in 2004 after scientists proved that he could understand more than 200 verbal cues.

A paper published in the journal Science backed up these claims, proving that Rico could identify familiar objects an average of 37 times out of 40, and would also respond correctly to unfamiliar words used to identify objects he had never seen before.

While we can’t know exactly how Rico did this, Sian Ryan of animal behaviour consultancy Developing Dogs has a theory: 'Rico would retrieve an unknown item from among known items when a new word was given as a cue. This could be explained by a dog’s natural interest in new things, or by process of deduction – "I know the noises for all the other things in this room so the one I don’t know must be the one they want".'


Impressive as his ability was, Rico was far outstripped by Chaser, another Border Collie from South Carolina. In 2010 with the help of her owner, a retired psychologist, she learned more than 1000 words. (You can test your pet’s IQ and find out if it is above or below the average!)

And then there’s the cute mongrel Sofia from Brazil, who proved in 2012 that she can ask for what she wants from her owner by pressing keys on an electronic panel that correspond to "toy", "food", "walk" and so on.

So if you fancy improving your own dog’s language skills, how should you go about it?

'The best way to teach a new word is by classical conditioning,' explains Sian. 'Say the word immediately before the dog performs the action so that the word becomes a predictor for the action. Dogs pick up visual signals more quickly than verbal ones, so it is often useful to first associate an upward hand movement with the behaviour "sit", for example. Once the dog is reliably sitting on the hand movement, then use your cue word and follow the word with the hand signal, and after a few repetitions – and rewards for sitting – you will see the dog begin to anticipate the visual signal after the verbal cue and sit when asked to do so. Then you can stop using the visual signal.'

But to develop a really impressive vocabulary, the most important thing is to keep talking to your dog.

'Use phrases such as "do you want to go outside?" as you open the back door, "time to go for a walk" as you pick up the lead, "shall we go in the car?" as you get to the car, and your dog will soon learn what the words mean,' Sian advises.

It’s dogs’ fascination with observing and cooperating with humans that is key to their capacity to learn verbal cues, says Sian.


And herein lies a major difference between dogs and cats. While dogs are often keen to please, most cat owners will admit that while their moggies often do demonstrate understanding of verbal cues, they can’t always be relied upon to respond!

In the main, cats simply aren’t as attuned to humans as dogs are – they’re more likely to develop selective deafness and ignore us altogether, and they also have shorter attention spans than dogs so are usually trickier to train. That said, cats can usually be relied on to learn the word "food" quite quickly ­­– it’s quite clearly a case of what suits them, rather than us…

Do you agree? Let us know what your dog or cat understands – and how you know – by posting your comments below.



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I definitely understand what my owner is saying to me and my brother did too. They talk to me like they talk to a normal person i.e. "Connie pick up that bone" and I do :)There are more examples in my story: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/304683Please download, it's a great book, heart warming and fun. Thank you paw much!
I have a cat and I would definitely agree with the research! He will only respond to me when he wants to respond to me but I think he understands when I ask "do you want food?" or "do you want to go outside?" He reacts to my tone, more than words tho. He knows my "lets play around" tone and the tone I use to say "get it!" when we're playing catch the bird. I always talk to him so he is a vocal cat and I do feel like we understand each other which I think is pretty awesome :)I grew up with dogs but haven't really noticed weather they were "more intelligent". I mean, yes some dogs run and catch balls but as the research stated, dogs have a longer attention span and seem "happier" to communicate with their owners. Very good piece of research :)
There is no doubt that our Collie X understands what we say. Even Dad who is sceptical agrees that she is one of the most intelligent dogs he has seen. Not only does she understand what we are saying she also knows what day it is, especially training day. I just wish that we could understand what she tries to tell us ;D
John C
I agree that cats can learn a few words, selectively. My little cat Dexter loves watching foxes outside and understands the word "foxes", though one night when I was talking rubbish to him I said "do I have clean sockses for tomorrow?". My deliberate bad plural of socks unexpectedly sent Dexter running to the window to look for the foxes.My friends' cat Timka understands the Russian for "time to eat" - "para payest".Asking Timka if it is time to eat
Billy's Mum
Absolutely. My cat is ultra sensitive to our voices. I have the same situation as John and when we tell Billy the foxes are in the garden, he knows instinctively to jump up onto the window ledge to look out at them.
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Here, you will again have to plan for what you can add in your kitchen to make it look like commercial kitchen. A� Your kids can use it both inside and outside your house.And, rural broadband access today is as critical as roads, hospitals, clean water, etc.

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