Can dogs understand words as anything but commands?

I’ve heard dogs can learn up to 200 words of human speech. But do they understand them as words – abstract symbols representing things or events in the real world – or only as commands?

Well, a lot of dogs know words like “walk” and “bath”, even when they’re spoken in a regular sentence. My dog knows his name even when you’re not talking to him at all.

They certainly do understand what words mean. Asking my dog if he wanted to “go for a ride in the car” would send him running to the door, and jumping up and down and barking in excitement. Any mention in his presence of giving him a “bath” would put him on wary alert. If I were sharing some food with him, and told him it was now “all gone”, he would stop begging for more. If I asked him where a certain member of the family was, he would go through the house looking for that person.

Several years ago, I told my oldest, Flash, to go find his ball. He started looking all over the room for it, 'cause he loves playing fetch. He couldn’t find it, and came back to me… I guess he thought I had it.

I said, “Hey, I don’t have it. Have you checked the computer room?”

His ears shot up, and he ran to the back of the house to the computer room… and came back a few seconds later with his ball.

I’d never taught him that particular concept- he’d just picked it up from conversations between us humans around the house. Kinda scary.

Do you consider it a command if the dog resonds to your question, “Are you hungry” by getting excited about food being imminent?
We are not commanding her to eat it immediately, just indicating that it will be placed in her bowl.

They’re not very good at the finer points of speech. Our pug loves cheese so much that eventually even the mention of the word would send her into a frenzy. But, she’d go nuts for pretty much any word that even sounded like “cheese”: please, fleas, sneeze, Hercules…

Eventually we started referring to all cheese as “gouda” around her. We were careful using that one, so she never associated it with “cheese”.

She also knows “toy” and “bone” and “ball”, and will go get the appropriate toy when you ask her, as in, “Where’s your bone?”

I guess a lot of responses will be anecdotal, but then it’s hard to really understand what a dog thinks. I tried to start a thread about that a couple of years ago, but got very few responses, so maybe science hasn’t figured that out yet.

They *do * think though, and it’s obvious that they process information. I read somewhere (Cohen and Stewart of Science of Discworld fame, IIRC), that Mind is catching and dogs got it, to a lesser degree than humans of course, but still. They have a clear sense of self, understand difference in numbers, even if they can’t do arithmetic, dream and can piece together ideas without having all information.

The other day, I noticed the car of friends who have a german shepherd. Knowing they were around with their dog, I said to Buster “Search for Zorro”. He dipped his nose into the ground and began searching frantically. Now, the search command he knows, but so far, we haven’t trained anything beyond prepared tracks. He enjoys tracking but he’s also been very aware of what’s expected from him.
Obviously, he knows who Zorro is, but he managed to put together a command which he normally wouldn’t get in that situation, with the name of his doggie friend and found that scent, among thousands of other and went straight for the shepherd, without hesitating a second.

It might not mean much, but I was damn proud that he managed with quite complex instructions.

None of these examples mean anything, all are explainable as simple stimuli/response.

Frodo is our male pug, not neutered (don’t ask. It’s not my choice. *looks at Mr. Athena). We have some friends with a female pug named Guppy, who is not spayed (yet).

Despite only “meeting” Guppy a few times, with at least a month, more often longer, between each visit, Frodo knows damn well what “Guppy” means and who she is. We can’t even say the word around him.

Guppy… the love of his life, muse of his dreams, sweet, sweet Guppy. He’s in looooooove. Well, lust at least. He wants some Guppy ass, he does.

Stimulus and response is how we all learned to understand language. Make a distinction between how a dog understands language and how a 24-month-old child understands language.

Regardless of the context, if you say the word “cookie” within my dog’s hearing range, she will follow you around relentlessly, giving you puppydog eyes and doing the normal ‘earn a treat’ routine* until you give her some manner of tasty treat.

*“Sit. Good girl! Down. Good girl! Up. Good girl! Shake. Good girl. You wanna cookie? Sit…wait…okay!” No part of this routine is optional; if you, say, try to just give her a treat after the first sit, she’ll certainly take it, but continue following you around (and, of course, demand another treat once you go through the routine).

I don’t even know what this is supposed to mean. Care to explain?

Even if they reduce down to mere stimulus/response (which is debatable), i.e., “Cookie” = “I am about to be fed a yummy treat, so I will act excited,” so what? The OP asked:

The distinction drawn is between understanding a word only to mean you must do something v. understanding a word to symbolize something else. Both can be examples of stimulus/response – or neither can be.

In my case, my dogs know that the word “Kitty!” means there’s a cat somewhere. They will run to the window to look for one, maybe throwing in a few prepratory barks. From observation, they don’t react that way just because I said “kitty” but because they know that word means “small feline creature I am hard-wired to chase if allowed.” If they were merely resonding to the stimulus of the word, they wouldn’t also be casting around looking for the cat.

Thanks to my old dog Bear (rest his soul), I now know about 300 synonyms for “walk”. Whenever he heard the word, he’d go crazy with anticipation. So we started saying “stroll”, instead… Which he also learned. So also for “hike”, “trek”, “excursion”, “constitutional”, “perambulation”, and so on.

As a member of the SDSAB, Chronos, I’m sure you’d suggest that old Bear, and I say this with all due respect, picked up the meanings of those synonyms by virtue of their inflections as uttered in the same basic sentences - e.g. “I’m going to take ol’ Bear for a _____.” I knew this thread would get lots of anecdotes from folks who claimed their dogs pretty much knew the maid’s part in 12th Night, but I think for the most part, their cognivie repertoire is pretty much limited to rote - based on tone of voice - and, yes, stimulus and response. Not much of a grammar, anyway. That’s my WAG anyway. xo, C.

Huh? That’s not the case at all. Evidence from child language acquisition suggests that a capacity for the use of language is inborn and begins developing at a very young age. Children may not be capable of sophisticated, full-fledged use of language, but there’s not some stage in a child’s acquisition of language that equates to psychological conditioning.

Then why does Haplo not just respond to his name, as in “Hap! Come on it! Come in! Put it down and come in!” but also to “He’s not a sturdy dog like Haplo is, he’s blah blah blah” - he knows his name when you mention it in conversation to another person. Not the same tone of voice as the tone when you’re speaking to the dog, and you’re not looking at him or anything. I think that means he knows his name, not just the configuration of me that means him.

Oh, I think a dog can learn its name. The same way we learn ours. I just doubt their cognitive sense goes much farther than that. I mean, if someone invented a game named Haplo that made the winner yell that at the end of the game, your good old dog would have a hell of a time figuring that out if you won over and over. Nome sane?

So why do my dogs look for a cat if you say “kitty”? Regardless of their intelligence, I think I’m smart enough to know when they’re looking out the house window or car window for something specific. I mean, they’re not gazing out the window; they’re looking for something. I’m not saying they distinguish between, say, a cat and a squirrel, but it seems clear to me they do associate the word “kitty” with a small animal, and one that is outside, not in the house or car.

My guess is that if I showed up at your house and actually said, “kitty,” your dogs would not look out the window. I suppose if you said it, they might. It’s tone of voice, it’s body language, it’s setting. They’re not flatworms. They can learn some things. But it’s pretty much conditioning. There’s a small little logic box in there, but it’s really small. Like when you’re totally drunk and almost asleep. Gates flashing but no train really coming along.