Inside the Mind of a Dog Trainer: Do Dogs Understand English?


"Inside the Mind of a Dog Trainer" is a new Koinonia blog series that will explore some of the ideas, perspectives, philosophies and realities that make dog trainers tick. The hope is that an inside look will better equip you to communicate with your dog! 

For the first installment, let's talk about talking. Trainers understand that verbal language (English in this case), talking, and words aren't first line options for changing behavior.

As humans, we default to verbal communication. When Fluffy jumps, you say "No! Get down!" Most people don't believe their dog actually understands English, but many are still subconsciously expecting it to work. When it doesn't and they're desperate, frustrated, and fed up, they call for help.
Why doesn't it work? Dogs are primarily visual communicators--they let their bodies do the talking, and it's a rich and complex language. Even if they were aural communicators, English is not their native tongue, and they'd have to learn it as a second language.

As a professional dog trainer, my job is really about teaching owners to use techniques other than English to communicate effectively with their dog. It's because dogs don't instinctively understand English that I have a job.
Trainers arrive to help families having already put the talking option aside. Letting go of English (as a primary solution) frees us to quickly commit to a more effective means of communication for behavior change.

This is not to say that words and talking have no place in training or communication, or that dogs cannot learn to understand English words. Humans are verbal communicators and we want to share that with our dogs. The difference, though, is that trainers understand that words of instruction have to be systematically taught before they can be relied upon to "work". Even then, evidence suggests that dogs understand visual communication better (see PsychologyToday's article, "Are Voice Commands or Hand Signals More Effective for Dogs?") Trainers have already adjusted their expectations to match reality and there's less frustration all around. We want the same for our clients!

So if English doesn't work as a first line option, what does? Stay tuned for the next installment: "Do Dogs Want to Please Their Owners?"

PS. What about verbal praise? If dogs don't understand English does that mean we can't say anything at all to them?
On the contrary! Verbal praise is a wonderful part of training and communication. In fact, my experience has been that when people use verbal praise as part of their reward system, they get better results than food rewards alone.