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Who’s a clever boy? Dogs know up to 215 words and phrases, study finds

It is a question that has been pondered by dog owners since the animals were first domesticated: Does my pet understand me?

And according to a new study, canines are capable of comprehending more than many might think.

Canadian researchers who studied 165 dogs and their owners found that the animals responded to between 15 and 215 words and phrases.

Two black and white puppies working as a team to carry rope - Stock image
Image: On average dogs were reported to understand 89 words and phrases

On average, the pets in the study could understand 89 words – the same number as an 18-month-old baby.

Researchers Catherine Reeve and Sophie Jacques from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University linked the animals’ capacity to learn to their close relationship with humans.

“Due to their evolutionary history and close association with humans, domestic dogs have learned to respond to human verbal and nonverbal cues at a level unmatched by other species,” they said.

The study concluded that dogs were particularly strong at responding to commands, as opposed to object words.

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Almost all dogs responded to their own name and basic commands like: come, down, stay, wait, no, okay and leave it.

two scared or afraid puppy dogs wrapped with a curtain.
Image: Our ability to communicate with canines has been linked to humans’ close relationship with the animals as they evolved

Most of the dogs would wag their tails when hearing treat-seeking phrases like “good girl” or “good boy”, while only a small minority would respond to less common commands such as “whisper” or “loud”.

The study released a list of words that dogs were found to respond to consistently.

It includes a number of phrases most of us might expect, such as “watch” and “sit” – alongside a few more surprising examples, including “vacuum”, “lake” and “peanut butter”.

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“Dogs seem to vary greatly not only in the number but also in the kinds of words to which they purportedly respond,” said the researchers.

And while some dog owners may disagree, the researchers did acknowledge that the animals may have simply learned to respond correctly to the words and commands they hear – while not necessarily fully understanding their meaning.