Do Labradors Understand Words?

It can sometimes seem like our Labrador Retrievers understand every word we’re saying — or not saying, if you’ve ever given your dog pause with a stern look when they’re ready to do something they shouldn’t. But can they truly understand? Are the words we speak traveling through those canine brains in the same way they would a human brain? It’s an often-asked question with an answer that might surprise you.

Labs and Words

According to researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex, dogs are able to process words, including their meanings and the emotional inflections within them, the same way humans do. Victoria Radcliffe, the research project’s co-author, says our loyal Labs can “respond to different parts of human speech — including the actual words and the emotional tone.”

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, Ratcliffe is quick to tamp down our expectations. We shouldn’t expect to be having full-on conversations with our Labradors anytime soon, stretched out on the couch spilling all of our secrets while the dog sits nearby with a notebook. “That doesn’t mean that dogs actually understand all the words people say,” she adds. It’s just likely the way dogs understand our language can be compared to the way humans do in a very broad sense.

There are sounds that have meaning for our dogs. Anyone who has ever said the word “sit” or “treat” knows this. Most Labs who have been taught these words associate them either with a thing (the treat, for example) or an action (either sitting, lying down, or rolling over).

They’re also able to know when the tenor is different. If you’ve ever playfully told your dog to sit while you’re prepping a treat for them, you’ll know they react a bit differently than when you tell them to sit when they’re misbehaving. They know things are serious then, and they react accordingly.

Dogs Studying Us

The same study claims, “Dogs have been studying us for a long time.” How did the researchers come to this conclusion? They placed dogs in between two speakers which played the British version of “come,” which is “come on, then.” The dogs tested heard two recorded versions of the phrase: one where aspects of the human voice were removed to place more emphasis on the words and their meaning, and one where more emotion was injected and the phrase was exaggerated.

When the version with more word emphasis was played, most dogs turned their heads to the right, which meant they were using their brain’s left hemisphere to process the words. In humans, the left hemisphere processes word sounds and their syntax.

For the more emotional version, most dogs turned their heads to the left, which meant they were processing the phrase using the right side of their brain. Humans use the brain’s right hemisphere to analyze the tone and emotion in the words they’re hearing.

It appears dogs do the same, and it’s likely they learned it from us. As animal behavior professor Nicholas Dodman states, the study seems to indicate “dogs have been studying us for a long time.”

So there you have it. Our Labradors can’t quite take in a whole conversation — and they certainly won’t be embedded spies anytime soon — but they’re a bit more like us than we might have imagined. The next time you say something to your dog, remember: their brain is working to decipher the meaning and intent in a very similar way to yours.