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Can Dogs Really Understand Us?

A pet lover passionate about educating readers about animal health and care. Love reading studies and recent research.
Published on
Wednesday 29 June 2022
Last updated on
Tuesday 9 May 2023
Can Dogs Really Understand Us?
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Dogs seem to relate to us when we give out commands, pour out our emotions, and even just tap on a chair. They know exactly how to respond. Can dogs really understand us? Do they understand the words we say and the emotions we feel?

By tilting their head and popping their ears, dogs seem to understand what we’re asking them to do. But, how much do dogs understand, and what do researchers say about this? Let’s find out.

Do Dogs Understand Humans?

According to research by Marcello Siniscalchi, Serenella d’Ingeo, and Angelo Quaranta, dogs have proven to understand humans through facial expressions, emotions, and vocalization. By living close to their owners, dogs developed better communication and understanding of human actions and reactions.

Dogs’ socio-cognitive skills will enable them to interact efficiently with their human. Recent literature reports a dog’s capability to understand different human visual signals, such as hand gestures and facial expressions. 

Can Dogs Understand Human Emotions?

In the American Psychological Association journal article, researchers select twelve dogs to participate in a study. Their goal is to test dogs’ sensitivity to human actions. The human was asked to leave the room, turn her back, distract the dog, and close her eyes. 

The dogs show different reactions to the various human states. The result helped the researchers conclude that dogs somehow can understand the presence and absence of a human being

Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer conducted another study about dog empathy for human distress. The study shows that dogs are more attentive to their owner when crying or in distress rather than when talking or humming. 

This response is behaviorally consistent with the dogs’ expression of empathy or emotional contagion with previous learning history. It was developed through positive reinforcement when they approach their distressed human companion. They will get a reward in return.

How Do Dogs React to Human Emotions

In the research by Marcello Siniscalchi et al., dogs show different intensities of responses to human emotions. Dogs look at the photos of humans showing different emotions. Dogs show a stronger reaction when the emotions are fear, happiness, and anger.

Their stress levels increase, and their heart rate increases when they see those photos. Dogs feel threatened with fear and anger, while they also get excited when they see a happy face. They can sometimes take a full smile with bare teeth and pulled-back lips as aggression, hence, the stress.

Another finding was how dogs turned their head when looking at the photos. When they see happy, angry, or fearful faces, they turn their heads to the left. But, when they look at non-threatening faces or emotions, such as surprise, they turn their head to the right. 

It suggests that the right side of the brain processes negative emotions while the left side processes the more positive ones.

How Can Dogs Understand Human Language

Dogs can understand us through the tone of our voice and body language rather than what we say. They focus more on our physical cues and facial expressions to know what we mean. 

If you say, “Come, let’s walk outside!” with a smiling face, pointing to the direction of the door and holding the leash, they will understand what you are trying to say. The dog will also respond with excitement by wagging its tail or barking. 

If you say the same thing but with a grumpy look and a low unexcited voice, your dog will probably just stare at you or whine. A study between dogs and human infant cognition shows that they have the same level of understanding of basic commands and human language

Many scientists believe that dogs can understand basic words but not sentences. For example, your dog will understand ‘walk’ easily rather than ‘let’s go for a walk.’ The association between human language, tone, and actions helps the dog communicate with us. 

Non-Detailed Phonetic Recognition in Dogs

Although dogs have the same level of cognition as human infants, they will not learn words the same way human adults do. It is called non-detailed phonetic recognition. According to Dr. Magyari, one of the researchers in social cognition and communication, dogs are listening to your speech.

However, their understanding of human words is not as deep and complete as we do. Their attention is not on the phonetic details but on proper training. They can recognize similar-sounding words. 

Moreover, she said that dogs recognize the differences in our words. They just do not think it is important. Therefore, you can keep talking to your dog, but use clear command words during training and conversation. They are listening, and they will process it in their own way.

Dogs’ Linguistic Ability

Average dogs are not capable of learning so many human words. But there are exceptions. In a Genius Dog Challenge, six pups are challenged to learn up to 12 new words in a week. All of them were able to learn up to 10 to 12 words. 

Furthermore, those words are not “command words.” They are names of toys that average dogs have trouble learning instantly. Even without training, the six dogs could learn new words after just four repetitions. 

Most of these participating dogs are Border Collies. According to scientists, their linguistic ability boils down to genetic and environmental factors

How Do Dogs Communicate

We now know that we can communicate with dogs through words, gestures, and even facial expressions. But how do they communicate with us in their different emotions or state? Look at the ways dogs communicate for us to know what our proper reaction should be.


Dogs can also experience anxiety, and we can see it through their breathing and body language. Here are some signs that your dog is experiencing anxiety:

  • panting
  • pacing
  • hiding
  • lowering their body
  • pinning their ears back

Their fear can turn into anxiety and aggression. Dogs can release it by either barking, lunging, or shutting down. Too much anxiety can lead to negative behavior such as destructive chewing, biting, or excessive barking. 


Aggression in dogs can be a result of so many things. They can show aggression in different ways. Their bodies may become stiff. They may growl, bark, or show their teeth. Aggressive behavior is usually a sign of potentially more dangerous behaviors, such as uncautious biting and lunging. It is important to manage this kind of behavior.


It is the most common and easily identifiable behavior of dogs. When excited, they jump up and down, do zoomies, or wag their tails excessively. An excited dog can also open its eyes wide and pop its ears up. Barking, nipping, and cautious lunging can also happen. 


A relaxed dog can show a slightly open mouth and loose body. It may sometimes sleep with its belly up. The dog’s tail may slowly sweep across the floor, and its head and ears are in a natural position. 


A scared dog can continuously yawn but not sleep and lick its lips. It may tuck in its tail, push back its ears, and lower its body. Sometimes, a frightened dog may tremble, lean back, and look away from the thing that makes it feel scared. Continuous fearfulness can result in aggressive behavior.

How Can Humans Communicate Better with Dogs

Owners can prevent unwanted dog behavior if they know how to communicate better with their dogs. Here are some ways how you can make communication with your dog worthwhile:

Use Clear Command Words

Some dogs can learn words without training. But, if you want to be sure that your dog will learn some commands, you must be clear. Give them easy-to-understand, one-word commands that they can easily follow. Be firm but gentle. 

Learn to Read Their Body Language and Facial Expressions

Dogs are very expressive animals. You can easily see if they are tired, scared, or excited. Be familiar with their body language and facial expressions for you to be able to give them what they truly need. You can also prevent the development of negative behaviors by being observant. 

Spend More Time Communicating

To ensure success in your communication and training, spend enough time with your dog. Do not make your dog feel that it must always be in alert mode. You can communicate with them calmly so that they will also feel relaxed. Spending time with your dog will also help you sense when something is wrong. 

Use Appropriate Body Language

Since dogs understand us better with gestures, tone, and facial expressions, we should incorporate them with our command words. You will see better results if your dog can feel safe and know exactly what you are asking them to do

Have Long Patience During Training

Dogs have different learning paces and styles. Some dogs can learn faster than others. So as an owner and trainer, you must be very patient with your dog. Never use negative reinforcement as it can cause fear, aggression, and anxiety.

Establish Routines

Routine is very important for dogs, especially in the first few weeks of training. Your dog should know the time when you are going to train, walk, eat, stay, and so on. These simple activities can be accompanied by simple commands as well.

Reduce Stress in Their Environment

A stressful environment cannot help your dog learn. To see progress in your communication, you must reduce stress-inducing things in your surroundings. It will help both you and your dog in the long run. 

Dogs can understand us in their own ways. They can recognize when we are scared, angry, excited, happy, and sad. They can also show us proper responses to those emotions. Truly, they are man’s best friends.

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