RESEARCH: Pet dogs respond to verbs, nouns, and terms of endearment

Current research demonstrates that pet dogs respond to verbs, nouns, and terms of endearment. Also, pet dogs respond to a range between 15-215 words or phrases – with an average of 89 words, documents New Scientist in December 2021.

Researchers Sophie Jacques and Catherine Reeve at Dalhousie University in Canada conducted a study of dogs and an itinerary of words to determine how many words, on average, dogs respond to. Rather than defining how many words dogs ‘know’ the researchers studied how many they ‘respond to’ – which means that the dog performed a trick or obedience behaviour, or performed an action such as tail wagging, or began looking at something or a direction, or search around for an item.

The researchers created a list of 172 English words, but also noted any new words that the pet owner used and the dog responded to. The words on the list were based upon previous research, dog training courses, pet shops, dog parks, and from dog owners.

The study was an online survey of 165 dog owners, asking questions to rate their dogs on their responses to words on the list.

The researchers found that the average pet dog can respond to 89 words and phrases, while some can respond to 215 words and others to only 15 words.

Words that they respond to (other than sit and stay) include outside, dinner, and vet. They respond to phrases and questions, such as I love you, and who’s that? They respond to room names and the names of family members, says Sophie Jacques. 

The researchers did not investigate differences between individual breeds. However, there were some trends among seven major dog breeds. 

Herding dogs (collies and shepherds) and toy companion dogs (poodles) responded to an average of 112 words.

Sporting and gun dogs (spaniels and retrievers) responded to an average of 80 words.

The researchers think that herding and toy companion dogs interact more with people and therefore respond to more words than sporting dogs. Also, service dogs (dogs for the blind and police dogs) responded to about 48% more words than non-service dogs.

There was no link between the dog’s owner and the number of words the dog responded to.

The number of people in the survey was limited, and a larger survey might reveal other results. The next step for the researchers is to see whether the number of words a dog responds to is linked to its intelligence or cognitive skills.  

Journal reference: Applied Animal Behaviour ScienceDOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2021.105513

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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