How Well Can Dogs Understand Humans?


Furry friends have been emotionally in touch with people for thousands of years…and they’ve picked up some other pretty incredible skills along the way! Dogs can understand humans by learning to read our facial expressions, comprehending important words and phrases, and according to some scientists, even thinking like people. So, just how well do dogs get us? Here’s what research shows.

When We Speak, Dogs Listen

While dogs can’t interpret full sentences, they’re quite skilled at picking out words that are relevant to them. Most pet parents aren’t surprised to learn their pups can understand simple key terms like “treat,” “walk,” and “vet,” but that just scratches the surface of what the canine mind can translate; the average dog can learn an astounding 165 words and some can comprehend as many as 250 words, according to the American Psychological Association! With a vocabulary like that, just think about how many advanced dog training commands your best friend can master.

Dogs’ intelligence also shines in their ability to understand language’s subtle nuances. Researchers from a 2020 Scientific Reports study placed dogs in an MRI chamber and played recordings of human voices saying words in a variety of tones, ranging from praiseful to neutral. After examining the results, the scientists found the dogs’ brains seemed to process the emotion communicated through each word separately from the meaning of the word itself.

This talent for understanding inflection suggests dogs are similar to people in their ability to sense if someone is happy, scared, excited, or angry based on their tone of voice. So, speaking calmly the next time you brush your dog’s teeth can help them feel more relaxed and cooperative.

Dogs Have Cracked the Body Language Code

Many pet parents have a strong grasp on reading dog body language, from playful bows and excited tail wags to curious head tilts and alert ear twitches. But what do dogs know about us and our own body language? Like people, dogs have excellent social cognition—the ability to understand behaviors in social situations. If your pup has ever rested their head in your lap when you were feeling down or mimicked your enthusiasm when you were joyful, you’ve gotten a firsthand taste of their adorable emotional prowess.

Science can help us comprehend how fluently dogs can understand human body language. A 2021 Current Biology study found domestic dogs are similar to human children in how they sense cooperative or communicative acts, such as interpreting a finger point as a signal to look in a certain direction. The study also found puppies as young as eight weeks old exhibit social skills and interest in human faces, even if they’ve had minimal contact with people. Although dogs can’t speak to us, they’re especially sharp in their ability to read us!

Do Dogs Think Like Humans?

While the canine mind is quite different than our own, dogs do think like humans in the way they retain memories and process certain information. Dogs can recall people and animals they’ve met before (including how they felt about them), as well as familiar smells and sounds. Their long-term memories are not as robust as human memories, however there is evidence dogs form episodic memories (specific memories from a long time ago), according to PetMD.

Evidence suggests dogs and humans also show similar brain activity in some situations. Scientists have shown that the same areas of human and canine brains light up for words and rewards, according to Wag! The left hemisphere in both brains, for instance, processes language. Dogs even possess math and problem-solving abilities. They can perform simple addition and subtraction, such as knowing when the two dog treats in front of them suddenly turned into three treats, according to Animal Cognition.


RELATED: How Smart Are Dogs? The Science May Surprise You!


Creativity Isn’t Exclusive to People

dog with nylabone creative play toys on slide

Perhaps most amazing of all, dogs can think outside the box! The canine mind is like a young child’s and can demonstrate creativity through problem solving, socializing, and playing. For example, a furry friend can discover a unique technique for getting the treat from a treat toy.

Your dog’s creative muscle needs to be exercised to reach its full capability, and providing your fur kid the right toys and activities can help them thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically. Set aside playtime each day and untap their creative potential with our curiosity-sparking Creative Play Toys. Featuring abstract shapes and unique textures and materials, these stimulating dog toys offer limitless playtime possibilities.

Learn more about how Creative Play Toys can unleash your dog’s imagination!

Understanding Is an Understatement

There’s virtually no limit to what dogs know about us emotionally. Dogs can understand human body language fluently and notice even the slightest gestures, distinguishing themselves as bona fide people experts. With a talent like that, it’s no wonder they have been by our side throughout the generations.

Our minds are similar in other intriguing ways, including how we spend our sleepy time! Find out what dogs dream about and how you can help your pup get a good night’s rest.