Your friendly pet Fido is a genius—most of the time, anyway. Though some researchers say dogs rely mostly (or solely) on physical cues such as body language to interpret what we feel or want, other studies suggest dogs may have vocabularies as robust as the average human toddler’s.
Although saying that may not be exactly fair… To the dog. Growing research on dogs has found that most canines can count, reason and recognize words and gestures as accurately as most human 2-year olds. Stanley Coren, a leading researcher on canine behavior and author of The Intelligence of Dogs, assessed 110 breeds alongside 200 professional judges to find out just how smart pups really are.
His studies found that most dogs understand about 165 words, and the best-of-class pups can recognize up to 250. This caused ripples in the world of canine psychology, but the news was old hat to those of us who long ago had to start spelling certain words (“walk” and “ball” anyone?) to prevent an uproar of expectant tail wagging. And then, if we’re being honest, some of use eventually had to use a thesaurus because the dog figured out what the spellings meant.
Which breeds ranked at the top of the language class? Border collies, poodles, retrievers, German shepherds, and Doberman pinschers. Borzois, chow chows, bulldogs, and Afghan hounds scored near the bottom—but hey, we love them all at LazyPaw Animal Hospitals. Coren believes the breed’s age has a lot to do with how sharp their language recognition is, since more recently established breeds such as the collie and retriever have been specifically cultivated to respond to what humans want them to do.
Older breeds are still responsive, but may pay more attention to other communication cues such as gestures, facial expressions, noises such as whistling, and tone of voice.
Dogs have also proven savvy in the math department in studies that examined how well they count. When Coren dropped treats behind a screen one at a time and either snuck a treat away or added one before raising the screen, the dogs tended to wait longer before eating them. The reason? They were busy working out the bizarre math and wondering where the missing one went or how an extra got there.
Wondering about the mysterious minds of pups can be fun, but most of all we think it’s important to ask ourselves how dogs relate to us and to the world so we can communicate better with them and continually improve our bond.