Most likely, you call your pup by their name all the time. And they seem to respond to it, right? They look at you, wag their tail, or come running to you. But do they really know what their name is, or your name, or do they just react to the sound or tone of your voice?
Well, the truth is dogs can understand our language but not quite in the same way we do. Studies have shown that dogs can learn words and recognize their owners’ native language. They can even distinguish between human speech and gibberish sounds. A lot of what they’re really doing is listening to our tone, reading our body language, and learning expectations.
Some expectations are ones we have taught them through repeated conditioning, and, for better or worse, others they learn through experiences.
For example, when you say, “Come here, Stanley,” and your dog, whose name happens to be Stanley, comes running to you. He did that because he likely learned that it means you want him near you and that it makes you happy. Most dogs are all about pleasing their owners, after all. But does your dog go barreling into the kitchen when he hears the word “Pizza”? Well, mine does, or would if he wasn’t taught better. He sees the pizza and has not only learned to associate the word with this cheesy circular delicacy. He has also tried it; he has been to the mountaintop and knows that it’s amazing. So, his experience with it has caused him to learn and remember that word.
So what about more unique words like names? Do dogs know our names?
How Dogs Learn Their Own Names
Naturally, dogs are not born knowing their names. They learn their names through a type of learning called classical conditioning, which happens when they associate a neutral stimulus (such as a sound or a word) with an unconditioned stimulus (such as food or praise) that naturally triggers a response (such as salivation or excitement). After repeated pairings, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits the same response on its own.
For example, if you say their name every time you feed them, they will associate the sound of their name with food or excitement when they hear it. Essentially, they learn that their name, or the sound, means something good is happening.
Of course, this doesn’t mean they understand their names are a label that identifies them. They just learn to react to a specific sound that has positive associations for them.
Because of how they learn sounds, don’t be surprised if your dog reacts to words similar in sound to their name, such as “Fido,” “Rico,” or “Taco.” They aren’t being funny; it just sounds the same to them. At least until they learn and recognize different words that may sound similar.
How Dogs Learn Their Owners’ Names
Just like with their own names, they don’t understand human names are unique labels that identify us. They will, however, learn to recognize your name through another type of learning called operant conditioning. Unlike classical conditioning, operant conditioning involves purposeful teaching, often using rewards or punishments.
This type of learning is used to encourage or discourage behavior with positive or negative consequences. For example, if you say your name and then give them a treat, they will learn that your name signals a reward. On the other hand, if you say your name and scold your dog, they will learn to avoid it because punishment is coming.
If you want to teach a dog your name. Try this five times in a row and repeat this process for a few days and see how quickly they pick up on it.
Tones and Sounds
As I mentioned, they still don’t understand what a name is or the point behind a name. But they don’t need to. Dogs are able to associate your name with you and certain actions.
It’s also possible that your dog will respond to another person’s name that is the same or similar to yours. This is where the tone of voice or pitch will come in. Dogs are highly attuned to sounds. They learn the sound of your voice together with the sound of your name instead of just the name itself. So if someone has a very similar voice to you, they may react the same way they would if you said. Until they see the person, that is.
Their sense of hearing goes well beyond just recognizing human speech, as most of us know. My dog can tell who is walking down the stairs by the sound of their walk. Interestingly enough, he probably learned it by accidental operant conditioning. Certain people come downstairs and pet him or love on him first thing. So that sound became a signal that he’s going to get affection. Or, in the case of small children…goldfish or another snack.
How Dogs Communicate With Us
Dogs are incredibly social animals and highly attuned to human behavior and speech. They have evolved to communicate with us not only through vocal speech but also through body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. They pay attention to us to figure out what we want or need from them, and they attempt to do the same to let us know their wants and needs.
Using my dog as an example again, I’ve learned that he has different barks. His bark when he wants to go potty is completely different than his bark for “I’m hungry,” and both of them are different from “INTRUDER.” The last one has only happened a handful of times, and it’s always been something along the lines of a tree branch hitting a window. But it was so noticeably different from any other sound he makes I knew exactly what he meant the first time he did it.
Dogs want to understand our words and communicate with us. In most cases, they go above and beyond to do their part. But communication is a two-way street. Now where have I heard that before? We have to do our part as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
It should come as no surprise that dogs don’t understand language the same way we do. Things like complex sentences, grammar, semantics, syntax, parts of speech, etc… all are a total mystery to them. They are still able to learn quite a few individual words. One study found that they can learn around 80 words on average. One dog, a border collie, was able to learn 1,000 words and was named the world’s smartest dog.
Do Dogs Know The Names Of Other People And Animals?
Training your dog to other names as well often comes by accident. In the same way, your dog knows their name; they will learn others that are repeated frequently. Positive reinforcement is associated with the name of a person that gives them attention or another animal they get to play with.
Depending on what association they’ve formed with someone’s name will change how they respond to their name.
Names Vs. Nicknames
The words “name” and “nickname” mean nothing to a dog. They don’t know what these labels are. But dogs can recognize multiple names for the same person or themselves. For example, my dog recognizes his name and about 8 different random nicknames I occasionally call him. He doesn’t know that “Buddy” or “Dogmeat” is not his real name. (Yes, I played Fallout once upon a time. IYKYK)
But he does know if he responds, he is most likely going to get pets, treats, or something fun that I called him for.
Another interesting thing is teaching your dog that certain names are for specific purposes. Like you call your dog “Sweetie” when you are planning to take her for a walk or “Buddy” when you want to cuddle. You’ll most likely see a different reaction out of them based on the name you used. In this case, you’ll notice that certain words go with certain actions to them.