Do dogs actually understand what words mean?

If you read the recent story about a border collie named Chaser who can understand over 1,000 English words, you may have looked over at your pet and raised an eyebrow. After saying, “wow,” this dazzling dog deal became a canine conundrum: Dogs obviously understand the same words as humans, but is it accurate to say that animals use language?

Man’s best friend is hardly the only animal capable of amazing humans with communication skills. While Chaser apparently can understand English words, extensive studies using gestural communication (sign language) explore the cognitive potential in the great apes. In addition, a recent book chronicles the late Alex, an African Grey Parrot that could apparently comprehend the difference between syntax and the meaning of words in English, distinguishing his cognitive skills from instinctive communication.

(You have a “pack” of dogs, but a “what” of cats? A herd? Find out, here.)

Instinctive animal communication versus learned cognition is at the heart of a debate raging in zoosemiotics, the study of animal communication. In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that there are 7 properties in human language that separate it from animal communication:

  • Arbitrariness: The relationship between the word and object is symbolic.
  • Cultural transmission: Language is learned from speakers.
  • Discreteness: Language exists in units that can be used in patterns to create meaning.
  • Displacement: Language can convey meaning about things not immediately present.
  • Duality: Language has a surface meaning and a semantic meaning.
  • Metalinguistics: We can talk about language.
  • Productivity: A finite number of units are combined to create an infinite number of meanings.

Some of these properties appear in animal communication, but it takes all seven to create human language. In contrast, animal communication is instinctive, not learned. Animal communication is highly functional and associated with survival, sustenance, reproduction or activities tangential to these goals. There are plenty of famous examples of this, from prairie dogs clicking to alarm others of predators to male songbirds singing for a mate.

(Why is the simple word “dog” one of the great mysteries of the English language? Here’s the story.)

Animals communicate through biological function, such as scent, and color. Certain aquatic species, the most sensitive being sharks, send electric pulses through electrocommunication.

So, when a dog starts wagging its tail and jumping when it hears you say “park,” the canine understands the events that typically occur in association with the sounds. While animals are capable of a dazzling variety of these word-event connections, the qualities listed above that make human language such a pliable resource also illustrate the big difference between us and our pets.

What do you think? Does your experience with pets support or contradict this assessment? Tell us about the most remarkable example of animal communication you’ve witnessed.