Do Dogs Understand Humans and Languages?
DR. WALLACE: I’ve had a dog for 10 years, since he was a puppy. I named him Clever Endeavor. I give him commands like, “Sit,” and he promptly sits down and looks up at me. Then I’ll ask him to roll over, or even to hand me his paw, and each time, he’ll follow up with my requests. To me, it’s obvious that Mr. Clever Endeavor can understand my commands because he does what I ask him to do.
So, my question is, do dogs understand humans? And if they do, can they understand different languages? What I mean is, a puppy here in America might lean commands in English, and a dog in Japan learns them in Japanese, and a dog in France learns his commands in French, right? Then what if the French dog visited Japan? Would he be lost in translation? — Love Man’s Best Friend, via email
LOVE MAN’S BEST FRIEND: According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, dogs tend to be good listeners, and they can have an uncanny knack for knowing exactly how we feel. No wonder they’re our best friends!
A recent study shows that these kinds of reactions are because dogs recognize how we’re feeling. In this research, dogs were shown pictures of people expressing six emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. They were also shown a neutral face. The researchers measured the heart rates and stress levels of the dogs as they looked at these different photos.
Dogs had a stronger reaction when they viewed fear, anger and happiness. Their heart rates went up, and their stress levels increased. It makes sense that fear and anger would elicit this response since they are heightened emotions that can make a dog feel threatened.
Happiness is also an excited state, which helps account for the dogs’ reaction to smiling faces. In addition, dogs may mistake the pulled-back lips and bared teeth of a smile as a sign of aggression.
But when it comes to languages, dogs respond mostly to tone of voice, especially when commands are spoken and accompanied by simultaneous hand signals.
And no, I don’t think a French dog would have any problem with a Japanese person who used similar tones and hand signals! Dogs and most animals that are capable respond to the universal language of repetition and familiarity that blends current situations with prior events and outcomes. That’s why the Pavlovian theory, a learning procedure that involves pairing a stimulus with a conditioned response, is so famous!
Dr. Robert Wallace welcomes questions from readers. Although he is unable to reply to all of them individually, he will answer as many as possible in this column. Email him at email@example.com.
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