Can dogs understand you? What a viral challenge means for animal science

"Dogs learn words that mean something to them."

Science trends populating TikTok can inspire plant parents or strike morbid awe over human anatomy. Others make you question your relationship with man's best friend.

In one of the latest challenges on the platform, dog owners are using their pets' "favorite" words in a story and filming how the dogs react. Researchers weigh in on what the dogs are likely paying attention to, and tell Inverse how much dogs can really understand when humans speak.

In the videos, dog ears perk up and their heads tilt when they seemingly hear their favorite words. The reaction suggests that these specific words — car, ride, park, grandma's house — mean something to the pups.

Here's an example, posted by @kaitlyn_daughtry on TikTok:

Do dogs understand human words? — There's some evidence that when dogs' ears perk up, it's because they really do grasp what their humans are saying.

In a 2011 study, a border collie named Chaser learned the names of more than 1,000 objects over three years.

Chaser the dog with 1,000 toys — all of which he knows by name.

Pilley & Reid, 2011

Holly Root-Gutteridge, a researcher at the University of Sussex, led a 2019 study on how dogs recognize human speech sounds. From previous work, researchers knew that dogs can recognize familiar humans by their voices. Root-Gutteridge's team found that dogs can also recognize the same word, spoken by different people, even unfamiliar voices.

"Dogs learn words that mean something to them," Root-Gutteridge tells Inverse.

When they hear humans, dogs are responding to both:

  • The words
  • The tone of voice

That's how pets learn commands, like "sit" or "shake." It's also how they're able to respond to the promise of something awesome — like a game, toy, or treat.

"Tell my dog Sheba 'chicken wing' or 'biscuit' and she knows exactly what she’s going to get and will go to the fridge or the cupboard and wait for it there," Root-Gutteridge says. "She has made the association that the noise I make, or the hand gesture I use, is associated with an outcome I want and if she does it, she’ll get something she wants."

In many of the TikTok challenge videos, dog owners are similarly using a Good Dog Voice — even emphasizing certain "favorite" words. The intonation isn't necessary for dogs to recognize a verbal cue, but it certainly helps.

"It’s a signal that we’re saying something exciting," Root-Gutteridge says.

Context cues — Understanding individual words and their definitions is impressive. But researchers note that this isn't quite the same as conceptually understanding words like "chicken wing."

Root-Gutteridge's dog Sheba "doesn’t realize that a chicken wing from the fridge is the same as a bird on a farm," for instance. She wouldn't be able to learn chicken in another language and associate that word with chicken.

"She learns words as associations of meaning, but I don’t think she uses them for abstract thought," Root-Gutteridge says.

Anna Gábor, a researcher at Eötvös Loránd University, agrees. It's true that dogs "are at least able to learn words and associate them to the corresponding context," Gábor tells Inverse, "but the dog is not able to transfer this meaning to other contexts."

Gábor led a recent study to determine how dogs categorize sounds — finding that dogs sort intonation and word sound into a hierarchy similar to humans. Intonation matters more, while the sound of the word itself is secondary, Gábor's team reported Monday in the journal Scientific Reports.

"I think no one can exactly tell how much dogs understand when we talk to them," Gábor says, "but there are exciting scientific studies on this question."

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