Earlier this year, speech pathologist Christina Hunger’s research went viral. Hunger had made a stunning advancement in the science of speech and communication. But her groundbreaking work wasn’t in humans — it was dogs. Specifically, her dog, Stella.
Essentially, Hunger taught Stella to answer basic questions using a board fitted with buttons that, if pressed, correspond to different words Stella might find useful, like “water” or “outside.”
Hunger’s pet dog isn’t the only one able to “talk” to their humans with the assistance of these devices. Among the most famous “talking” canines are Bunny, the TikTok dog, and another pup that used to the board to curse at its owner when it was denied a treat.
Yet dog-human communication doesn’t depend on a high-tech board to act as the medium. To suss out how dogs talk to humans — and speak to one another — we spoke to pet experts to answer your biggest questions. Including whether your pet dog can really understand human languages.
Can dogs understand human languages?
Fido might retrieve a ball when you yell “fetch,” but did you know he may recognize many more words than such basic commands?
Inverse has reported previously on three separate studies which all assess language-learning abilities and word processing in dogs. All three had some curious results that offer some key insights for owners into canine cognition.
The first study details the Genius Dog challenge. In this study, researchers found that certain dogs could learn to remember objects by name, although it is important to note that all of the participating pet dogs were border collies.
Yet a second study seems to take these findings further, suggesting that dogs can quickly master certain words, much in the same manner as do young human children.
“Our research has shown that some rare individual dogs can learn object names in a rate that is comparable to that of infants,” Shany Dror, a Ph.D. student at Hungary's Eötvös Loránd University and a researcher on the Genius Dog challenge, tells Inverse. But it is a privileged few, she says.
“Most dogs do not,” she clarifies.
A third study released in 2020 by a separate team, jibes with these findings, suggesting that dogs have impressive word-processing skills. It found that dogs could distinguish between words they knew and which made sense to them — like “sit” — and random, “nonsense words,” to use the paper’s language.
“This shows that dogs are capable of recognizing words they are familiar with — e.g. instruction words — just by listening to them,” Lilla Magyari, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral fellow at Norway’s University of Stavanger, told Inverse at the time.
Other recent research hints at the fascinating ways dogs’ brains process speech in a similar fashion to humans. In fact, we likely use the same parts of our brain to interpret voices as do dogs. A 2016 study also found that dogs use the left part of their brain to process word meaning and the right part of their brain to interpret tone — just like humans.
How dogs process words can help improve human-canine relationships. A 2018 study found that when human owners speak in “baby talk” — talking directly to your dog and using exaggerated, high-pitched, varied tones and simple, repetitive language — can ultimately strengthen your relationship with your pup.
Can dogs talk to each other?
If you run into another canine while taking your pup for a walk, your dog may greet them in a variety of ways, ranging from curious sniffing to friendly barking to outright aggression.
If they aren’t afraid or otherwise trying to steer clear of the other dog, then the first thing your pup will likely do is to sniff the other dog. Dogs, which have more than 100 million sensory receptor sites, use smell to communicate in interesting ways. For example, they can use scent to recall whether they’ve met a dog before — and catch up on old times with them.
When dogs are positively communicating with each other, they tend to demonstrate certain friendly gestures, according to the American Kennel Club. These gestures may include:
- Tail wagging
- Wiggling their rear ends
- Play fighting
But many of the gestures used in play fighting — good — and real fighting — not good — can overlap. The warning signals can include:
- Pinned ears
- Displaying teeth
- A stiff tail
Dogs tend to greet each other head-on when on leashes, which can feel unnaturally aggressive to some pooches. As a result, your dog may try to avoid another one by barking or growling — essentially, telling the other pup to back off.
But if your dog is sneezing, that’s actually an indication that they want to play with the other pup. Dogs often sneeze to show they are in a good mood and are a tell-tale sign that they have a desire to romp around.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution and keep your dog separate from other dogs until you’ve sussed out the situation, and importantly, listen to your dog, not your own desires.
But even when communication seems to break down between humans and canines — we are different species, after all — know that your dog is trying to communicate with you. It just might not be in the way that you think.
Can dogs tell humans how they feel?
Like humans, pets also transmit sounds to communicate their feelings. Sighing or groaning could mean that your dog is bored. Whining or whimpering can indicate anxiety or fear.
“Dogs have a large variety of different sounds that they use, such as barks and growls,” Dror says.
Some of the most common dog sounds include:
One of the most prominent — and loud! — ways dogs can communicate with humans: by barking. We typically associate barking with fear, but that’s not always the case.
According to previous Inverse reporting, dogs bark when they need something they cannot get, or when they cannot overcome an obstacle on their own and thus require outside help. They might be excited by the sight of a car passing by the window or the approach of a familiar human at the door, for example.
But if you really want to get to know your pup, you may have to look beyond the obvious, according to the experts.
“If people really want to understand their dog, they should pay more attention to the visual signals that the dog is showing, such as body posture and facial expressions,” Dror says.
Humans don’t always tell other humans exactly how they feel — rather, our species is a master in using nonverbal cues and body language to communicate tone, feeling, and desire. Dogs behave in a similar fashion.
How to read dogs’ body language
“This is how dogs try to communicate to us the more subtle signals about how they feel and what they want,” Dror adds.
Some specific canine body parts to pay attention to:
Some common physical cues that carry hidden meaning include goosebumps or raised hackles — when the dog’s hair stands on end. These signs typically indicate arousal, meaning that something has caught your dog’s interest. Likewise, dogs may move their ears forward when something has piqued their attention.
The speed that a dog’s tail moves can also tell its owner something important. Alert dogs will often maintain raised or erect tails, while excited or insecure dogs will wag their tails. Finally, if your dog tenses its lips, it might be feeling anxious.
But before you get too wrapped up in what your dog is trying to tell you with its tail wags, ear position, or just straight-up barking, consider what you are telling your dog.
Dogs are also incredibly emotionally intelligent and they can pick up on human distress through the sounds and motions we make, according to a 2017 study. Your pup might just be mirroring your own emotions back at you.
If you’re still having difficulty communicating with your dog, consider seeking the advice of a specialized dog behaviorist who can suggest specific training. Recent studies have shown that adults and children can learn to better understand canine body language after training with their dogs.
“All dog owners know that our dogs are always successfully communicating with us, even if this communication is very different from the verbal language humans use to communicate with each other,” Dror says.