Some dog lovers are sure that their canine companion understands them perfectly. Nevertheless, there are often misunderstandings between humans and dogs in day-to-day life, because what appears self-explanatory to us isn't always so clear for dogs. What do dogs really understand?
What dogs understand
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Sometimes it appears as if dogs understand exactly what their owner wants to say to them.
How do dogs perceive the world?
If you're wondering what dogs understand, you should focus on the question of how they perceive the world. Obviously dogs can't solve crossword puzzles, but they are experts in smells. They experience a parallel world of aromas with their nose that perceives smells around a million times better than ours.
They can still follow traces even after a few days. If we lose a key in a bush, it's very easy for most dogs to find it for us. Dogs solve sniffing tasks that would be unsolvable for us in no time at all.
For more on the subject of perception: a dog's senses.
Do dogs understand our language?
Dog lovers know the feeling: “My dog understands exactly what I've just said!”. However, as is so often the case, it's not what you say, but how you say it. Aside from memorised words like “sit”, “great” or “here”, although dogs can't understand our language literally, they do hear whether we are annoyed or pleased.
In 2016, researchers published the results of a study with 13 dogs. The dogs were trained to sit calmly in a special MRI machine so that the researchers were able to observe their cerebral reactions to certain words.
They examined their reactions to words of praise expressed neutrally and joyfully in comparison to insignificant words expressed in a neutral and joyful manner. Praise expressed in a friendly manner activated the brain's reward centre most of all. Empty words hardly triggered any reaction, even when given in a praising tone.
Important: Body language is also very significant for dogs. For a dog in training, it makes a big difference whether their owner is looking at their phone or focused on them during training.
Dogs understand concepts
There are dog breeds like Border Collies considered to be working dogs. One of these has become particularly famous: Rico, who was able to identify over 200 different toys.
If his owner named a toy, he would unerringly fish that exact one out of a mountain of toys. What's more, if he heard an unfamiliar term, such as 'daisies', he would come back with a newly added toy – via the process of exclusion. These are extraordinary cognitive abilities for a dog. Hence, dogs are able to understand simple concepts.
The importance of the socialisation phase
The socialisation phase for dogs makes a significant contribution to what and how much dogs understand in human day-to-day life. Up to the age of 12 weeks, puppies should spend plenty of time with humans in order to be able to better gauge human facial expressions, body language and voice registers throughout their lives.
Many street dogs that have had no positive socialisation with humans frequently interpret human body language to be threatening. One example is direct eye contact. This is no problem for dogs that have been used to humans since a young age, but direct eye contact can lead to defensive behaviour from street dogs.
It's a similar process if you wish to bring a dog and cat together. If the dog has never encountered cats, it will have difficulties understanding them. From a dog's point of view, purring can soon turn into growling.
“My dog just doesn't understand me!”
During canine puberty in particular, many dog owners think that their four-legged friend will suddenly no longer understand them. A month ago, your dog rushed towards you with flapping ears when you called it back, but now it just briefly raises its head and carries on sniffing away at leisure.
No worries - your dog does understand you. But it doesn't understand why it should comply with your request, since the world has so many exciting things to offer! During canine puberty in particular, training should be shrewdly built upon. It is preferable to take a step back instead of demanding too much.
Don't be scared: once you have overcome the difficult phase, patient practice will pay off twice over!
What dogs understand: three day-to-day misunderstandings
Dogs often interpret their owner's behaviour very differently to what was intended. In order to illustrate this, we have selected three classic misunderstandings between humans and dogs – written with a wink, because even we aren't mind readers.
1. Yapping together
Situation: The male dog Alto sees a fellow male 50 metres away approaching him and his owner. He reacts by barking loudly: “Watch out, there's a dog coming!”.
Problem: This is obviously unpleasant for the dog's owner, who forcefully shouts “Alto, stay still! That's enough!” and “CALM DOWN!”. The owner raises their voice more and becomes more and more agitated.
What the dog understands: “My owner is getting really wound up! Just as well I barked. Great, now we'll bark together! My owner isn't as loud as me, but together we'll frighten off Fiffi!”.
Solution: There is the option of carrying out targeted anti-barking training with your dog, for instance, on social walks. Keep calm and give off an air of assurance. You definitely shouldn't yap along with your dog.
2. Pulling at the lead
Situation: The walk together has become a test of strength: Wotan the dog is pulling his owner in all directions where he smells something interesting.
Problem: The owner follows the dog, but keeps the lead tense and thinks: “Resisting like this will surely make it clear to Wotan that such behaviour isn't wanted.” They occasionally give the lead a big tug and say “don't pull!” in a severe tone. But after 20 seconds, the owner is on the ropes again, or in other words, at the end of the tightly stretched lead.
What the dog understands: “How annoying that my owner is pulling the lead like that. But never mind, we'll get there anyway! The more I pull, the easier it will be to reach my goal.”
Solution: Never give in to your dog pulling at the lead, otherwise its bad behaviour will be rewarded, because it will get closer to its objective. Instead, you're best off standing still until the lead gains some slack again. Or walk in the opposite direction with your dog. Lead training certainly requires patience.
3. Table manners
Situation: The Stark family agrees that Freddy the hybrid won't get any food from their table because they disapprove of him begging.
Problem: The daughter Jessica doesn't want the filling from her breakfast roll, so makes little balls from it that she drops under the table. One subtle bite and they're gone. Nobody will notice.
What the dog understands: “In future I'll keep close to Jessica during meals and get treats from her.”
Solution: Most dogs don't understand exceptions to the rule. If the rules have been broken once, they will put a lot of energy into achieving their objective again. Hence, everyone in the household should be in agreement and remain consistent.
Taking a dog's perspective into consideration
If you consider in tricky situations how things may appear from a canine perspective, you can avoid possible communication misunderstandings.
For instance, some dog lovers have the habit of including commands in whole sentences: “Jack, sit down now please! We've already practiced this”. A lot of luck is required for a dog to understand this. In contrast, a simple “sit!” is a clear statement.
Often the reward is poorly timed or the dog becomes too humanised and doesn't understand what its owner wants. Attending a dog school can help in this sense, because often little habits have formed that humans don't notice.