Can a dog understand human language?

Yesterday evening, I was visiting my mother-in-law with my wife and son. Since January, my mother-in-law had been hospitalized for a serious case of Stephens-Johnson Disease. She was just released this week and she has had several visitors to her home since her return.

When we first arrived, my son Josiah was upset that his Papaw had to leave for class. He is enrolled in the Supernatural Ministries Training Institute (SMTI) video correspondence course offered at our church in Radcliff, KY. It seems that Josiah was looking forward to Papaw taking him outside to play on the swing set and with all the other toys they had from my mother-in-law’s in-home daycare (when she was hospitalized the daycare was shut down). Although Papaw couldn’t take him outside, he accepted a compromise by allowing me to take him outside.

So off we went, Josiah, me, Freckles the bird dog, and Buddy the Jack Russell mix. The dogs ran around and played with each other while Josiah went straight to the swing set. I pushed him on the swings for a little while until he decided to go play inside his miniature house. Shortly after that, I pulled him in a red wagon through the thickening green grass decorated with splotches of purple wildflowers and a variety of poop piles.

The yard is not usually like this. In fact, Papaw usually walks Freckles and Buddy on a daily basis. On the walks, the dogs do their business, and Papaw dutifully cleans up the droppings and disposes of it in double-bagged shopping bags placed into his trash can. However, with the frequent trips he has made to the hospital over the last three months, the dogs haven’t been able to go on their daily walks and the yard has become a dumping ground for dog waste. Being a dog waste removal specialist, I have decided to clean up their yard for them so that it will be in great shape when Nana is finally able to reopen her daycare.

Another family was visiting when we first arrived at Nana and Papaw’s but they left shortly after we arrived to go pick up dinner for Nana. When they returned, two little girls, Kimora and Cece, came outside to play with Josiah. They all played on the swing set for a little while, then Josiah went to the toy house. Just outside the toy house is a small sand table. At least, its supposed to be a sand table. Currently, the table is full of rainwater. Josiah likes to play in this water because his Papaw lets him do it, but I think also because he’s a boy. Whenever it rains, Josiah always seems to find the puddles. He points them out, “Wa-wa!” he shouts in triumph and then does everything in his power to go walk through and stomp in the puddles.

After playing in the sand table, Josiah ran over to the fence on the back opposite side of the yard. This fence separates the neighbor’s yard from Nana and Papaw’s yard. On the other side of the fence are two dogs. One is chained and unable to move and the other, Buddy, is a black lab. (Please note, the neighbor’s lab is Buddy and Nana and Papaw’s Jack Russell is also Buddy).

Buddy the Lab came trotting gleefully toward the fence with a football in his mouth. “Will you throw it for me, please?”

“Sure thing,” I said and reached over the fence to get the ball from his mouth. Unfortunately, I am not quite long enough to reach over. “Buddy, can you jump up?” He did not move. I suspect it is because there is a wire running along the top perimeter of the fence. It’s an electric fence. Nervously, I reached over and bent as far as I could. I did not get shocked. The fence was off, but evidently Buddy had an encounter with the fence when it was turned on because he would not stand up to give me the ball.

Kimora asked to throw the ball. Then Cece and Josiah also wanted to throw the slimy muddy slobbery football. We alternated turns, Kimora, Cece, Josiah, and me, throwing the football for Buddy. Then the children found some large blue beach balls, the kind you can buy for 99 cents from toy stores in warmer months, and started to play with them. I gave a few more throws of the football, when suddenly, a blue-marble colored ball went over the fence into Buddy the Lab’s yard. It landed just out of reach.

When Buddy returned from retrieving the football, I asked him, “Buddy, can you get that blue ball and push it over to us?” His eyes looked at me while still holding his football in his mouth. “I’m not interested in the blue ball. Please throw the football for me.”

So I threw it a few more times. Reluctantly, I said, “Well, Josiah, I guess I will have to tell Papaw to talk to the neighbor to get your ball back.”

Then, Kimora asked if we could get out the wagon. I agreed, but Cece and Josiah climbed into the wagon and there was no room for Kimora. I pulled them through the yard and we ended up back over by Buddy the Lab’s fence. When we approached the fence, Buddy galloped from the far end of his yard toward us. He slowed his pace, lowered his head, and nosed the blue-marble colored ball closer to the fence just like I had asked him a few moments earlier.

“Did I do a good job?” He seemed to say, smiling happily.

“Buddy!” I exclaimed. “Thank you so much!” I used a stick to nudge the ball within reach. My initial plan was to position the ball close to the fence and then use my fingers to move the ball up the side of the fence until I could pull it over the top. But then I remembered there was a shovel in the garage that seemed to be just the right length to scoop the ball up and over the fence. The shovel worked and as soon as I had the ball back on our side, I turned back to Buddy the Lab and said “Thank you” again both verbally and in ASL so that Buddy could see.

So, can dogs understand human language? I think they can. Besides our spoken language, they also pick up and interpret our body language. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, authors of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think have conducted various studies that show that dogs have an uncanny ability to understand human language and gestures.

Does your dog understand what you say?

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