Do dogs understand us? | Village Vets

Ah, the age-old question. While many owners probably wish their pooches could understand them, you’d be surprised to know that this is closer to reality than Dr. Dolittle would have us believe. Animals are intelligent, amazing, and clever beings; for dogs this is no different! 

The Minutiae of Body Language: 

There’s a reason as to why dogs are often chosen as comfort animals during court cases involving children. As an animal capable of picking up on the tiniest of details, scents and vibes, dogs are naturally attuned to console and comfort us even when we don’t think we’re feeling down. Has your dog ever randomly hopped up on your lap, or maybe lay down at your side unwarranted? That’s a clear sign that they’re getting a feeling from you, and as they would if they were in a brood, they’ll curl up beside you to let you know that they’re close. 

Barking > English: 

On the surface, barking in and of itself is the rudimentary form of communication that dogs use. Below the surface, however, barking is as complex as any spoken language. A single change in pitch or tone can convey an entirely different meaning from one dog to another, or from one dog to a human. It’s when it’s the other way around when things get tricky. 


Most long-term owners will know exactly what their dog is referring to by their bark alone and, similarly, most long-term pets will know exactly what their owner is referring to by their body language, their tone, their pitch, their voice, and their timbre. This mutual understanding based on time spent together, learnings taken from both parties and routine is the basis for dogs being able to understand us and, conversely, us being able to understand dogs. 

The Short-Long Answer: 

Well, no. Unless a dog has been trained for years and years to understand various words and phrases, then it’s highly unlikely that they’ll understand each specific word we say. But yes, dogs do understand, sometimes, what we’re saying by way of association. Pavlov’s bell may… ring a bell? 

Being the incredible creatures that they are, dogs can link a word (more-so an utterance) to an action even when we’re not trying to train them. For some owners this means spelling the infamous word WALK as opposed to saying it aloud, because saying it means you’ll have a very excited pet racing to get their lead. Treat and toilet are another two words that most dogs will link a certain action to, though not always in the right order! 

Sheep herding dogs are incredible in this sense, simply because they can associate the various actions their master wishes them to perform with clicks, whistles, grunts, and whispered words; all the way from one side of a field to another, mind you. So, the next time you see a herd being rallied by a stern Collie, you’ll know that there’s magic at work! 

What This Means For You: 

In everyday life your pet won’t have the luxury of being able to understand every single word you say, but through word-association alone they’ll be able to understand you well enough to give you the impression of understanding you (if that makes sense?). Oh, and even when it seems like they’re ignoring you, trust us, they can hear you loud and clear; they’re just choosing not to listen!