dogs learn through observing

Studies are showing that dogs are a lot smarter than we might think, and that they can learn a lot of words just by observing and listening to human interactions.

How many words does your dog know? You’ve probably noticed that he seems to understand more than the basic “sit”, “stay” or “come”. For example, he might perk up his ears when you say words like “treat”, “park” or “dinner”. Even though you’ve never taught him those words, he clearly knows what they mean. The fact is, dogs are a lot smarter than most of us realize, and they can learn by just observing, watching, and listening to the people around them.

Language learning in dogs

At a small reception following a talk I gave on dog communication, one of the university hosts introduced me to a developmental psychologist who specializes in language development. “She has a bone to pick with you about your interpretation of language learning in dogs, like Chaser the Border Collie,” he warned me.

Chaser is perhaps the most linguistically advanced dog tested so far. Owned by John Pilley, a professor emeritus of psychology from Wofford College in South Carolina, Chaser’s language training began when she was a puppy. Most of the words she has learned are nouns, namely labels for toys. Her verified vocabulary is around 1,000 words, which, as I noted in my talk, is the equivalent of what we might expect from a 3½- year-old human child.

The developmental psychologist objected to my drawing a parallel between language learning in dogs and children. “You have to take into account the process of learning, not just the number of words the dogs learned,” she said. “Children learn most of their language by watching and listening to the people around them speaking and engaging in various behaviors. Dogs don’t.”

“Dogs do learn by just listening and watching,” I assured her. “Many dog owners will tell you that all they have to do is to say the word ‘walk’ for their dogs to get excited and rush to the door. I had a dog who, if he overheard the word ‘bath’, would skitter around to find a hiding place.”

“Many dog owners will tell you that all they have to do is to say the word ‘walk’ for their dogs to get excited and rush to the door.”

Testing dogs to see how they learn words

I described a study by Sue McKinley and Robert Young, of the Department of Animal Science at De Montfort University in Lincolnshire in the UK. In this study, dogs learned labels by watching a person interact with someone the dogs knew (usually their owners) and another person.

Each dog had to learn to identify a particular toy by name and retrieve it on command. Two sets of rubber toys were used. One set consisted of three red rubber dog toys (a boot, a fire extinguisher, and a strawberry) while the other set consisted of three yellow rubber dog toys (a saxophone, a toothbrush, and a hammer). One toy was chosen randomly from each group with the idea that the dogs would learn to retrieve it when given the object’s name.

Each dog was taught to retrieve specific objects using one of two different methods – the “Reward Technique”, which was used to train Chaser, or the “Watch and Listen Technique”.

  • With the “Reward Technique”, teaching a dog how to retrieve a red rubber boot toy might begin with only that toy out on the floor. If the dog nosed at it when the experimenter said the word “boot”, he would get a food reward. Later, the dog would have to pick the boot up in his mouth to get the reward, and eventually he would only be rewarded for bringing the toy to the experimenter when asked to “get the boot”. When the dog responded to the command correctly three times in a row, the experimenter moved him on to the testing phase. All three red rubber toys were displayed and the dog was told to “get the boot.” The length of time the dog took to learn the task measured how well the training worked.
  • The “Watch and Listen Technique” of training used in this study required the dog to observe a “conversation” between his owner and another person concerning the toys. The dog was secured on a leash roughly five feet away from the owner and the model. There was only one toy and the two people “discussed” it using scripted sentences. Since research with humans shows that we remember the last part of a sentence best, the name of the object was placed at the end of each sentence. Suppose the item the dog was supposed to identify was the yellow hammer. A fragment of the conversation might run like this:

Owner: “Can you see the hammer?” at the same time handing the rubber hammer to the model.

Model: “Yes, I can. Thank you for the hammer,” while handing the toy back to the owner.

Owner: “Can you pass me the hammer?” while he hands the toy to the model.

Model: “Thank you for the wonderful hammer,” while handing it back to the owner.

This dialogue was performed in a highly animated and enthusiastic style to keep the dog’s attention. The target object was passed back and forth with both people looking at the object. After watching the conversation go on for about two minutes, the dog was asked to retrieve the object from a distance of ten feet with the command: “Get the hammer.” If the dog failed to get the object, the training was repeated and the extra time was added to the total training time score. If the dog succeeded, then he was tested by being asked to “get the hammer” after all three yellow toys were put out at the same time.

The results

It turns out that dogs are able to learn from simply observing social interaction while they listen and watch two humans speak to each other. Furthermore, the total training time, and the speed and accuracy with which the dogs perform this task, is much the same whether they are trained by standard reward-based methods or by simple observation.

Total training time is much the same whether dogs are trained by standard reward-based methods or by simple observation.

“So,” I explained to the developmental psychologist, “although most language-learning dogs are usually taught using rewards for each single word they learn, it appears they can also learn the meaning of words by looking and listening, much the same way kids do.”

My host smiled and mused out loud, “I wonder what else our dogs are learning by just watching and listening….”

Keep an eye on your own dog while he’s hanging out with you and your family or friends, and see which words you use generate a reaction in him. You might be surprised by how big his vocabulary is!

Teach by labeling your actions

Since your dog watches and listens to you, it is possible to train him without much effort by simply talking to him. The trick is to verbally label the actions you are performing. When you are going up or down stairs, say the dog’s name and “stairs!” In a short time, simply saying “Max, stairs!” will cause him to look for a staircase to go up or down.

This same process can be used to teach your dog more complicated things. Suppose you want to teach him to jump over a hurdle. Simply put the dog on a leash and move toward the hurdle. As you jump over it, say his name and the word “jump!” Generally, the dog will stay with you and go over the hurdle. Usually, after only a few repetitions, you can put the dog in a sitting position on one side of the hurdle, then go to the other side and give the command “Rover, jump”; in most cases, the dog will respond correctly and jump over it without you.

Keep talking to your dog about what you and he are doing, and if you always use exactly the same words, it is remarkable how much he will learn!


Stanley Coren is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is an award-winning behavioral researcher, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has written books on dog behavior and human-canine interactions, and received the Maxwell Medal of Excellence from the Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream?