We dog-lovers have meaningful conversations with dogs.   We all do – there’s no denying it.  Not only with our own dogs.  We chat up strange dogs we hardly know and you should listen to the volunteers shooting the breeze with dogs at animal shelters:  How’ve you been sweetheart?  Who’s a good boy?   Feel like a walk today?

But it’s mostly our own dogs we talk to.  It’s not always one-sided things like Sit! Stay! Come! Heel!  Stop that! Where’d you hide my slippers?  Don’t walk in that puddle!   The talks can be quite detailed, exchanges of points of view.  They can be complaints.  They can be sweet nothings or affectionate asides.  They can be explanations, requests and excuses:  I have to go out now, but I won’t be long – I promise.  No, you can’t come.   Wait nicely in the car while I go into the store.  Of course I’ll be back.  And don’t bark at people walking by.   I may bring you a treat.

The  pleasure of talking to our pets is probably among  the reasons why rescue groups still  find new homes and families for refugees during the pandemic.  Stuck at home, bored, tired of television, needing company, longing for a hug, people have turned to shelters for the pets they have long wanted but never gotten around to doing anything about.  They see now that when your own dog gazes up at you with big ol’ brown eyes, you have a real pal to talk to.

When Covid 19 arrived and we all had to stop doing our usual things, Marin Humane and other shelters wondered if adoptions would slow down – heaven forbid, even stop!  That has not been the case.   With pragmatic changes in rules about how to make the animals safely available to the public, adoptions have continued at Marin Humane.  People just don’t want to sit at home all on their own – or staring at the same old faces across the breakfast table.  See how it works – go to the shelter adoption page to learn how you can meet an adoption dog in these special times:

Now that we have established that chatting with your dog is quite normal behavior, let’s see what the records have to say about it.   A figure that has appeared in several studies is that a well-trained dog has a level of understanding similar to that of a 2-1/2 to 3-year-old human – and we all know how interesting and surprising that can be.  There can be a level of understanding that is quite unexpected.

Do our pets know what we are talking about?   Or are the physical and audio contacts enough for an actual understanding?   Like any subject with elements of subjectivity and supposition, you will find differing opinions and controversy.   But there are some areas of consensus and one of them is that for a good old natter, the Border Collie will have the largest vocabulary and the most reliable ability to conceptualize words.   There was a famous member of the breed – Chaser – who was taught during her 15-year lifetime to identify 1022 objects.  Name it and she would fetch it for you.  More than just a good memory, Chaser also understood verbs and adverbs.  She was not just a living hard-drive with lots of memory bytes.  She could figure things out.

Other Border Collies have achieved fame in this area – notably Betsy who lived in Austria and who appeared on the cover of National Geographic.  Betsy knew a whopping 340 words and needed to be told them just twice.   Remarkably, she could tell the difference between an instruction and a simple comment.  Then there was Rico who knew more than 200 words and who – tests showed – remembered them for months afterwards without having to be reminded.  (Which, I confess, is a bit better than I.)

I don’t think the fact that Chaser knew more words than Betsy or Rico showed that she was necessarily the more intelligent dog.  Maybe her teaching was more intensive and occurred over a longer period.  We know from the record books that Chaser’s schooling started when she was just a months-old pup – and she lived with her teacher, Prof. John Pilley, for 15 years!

How many words does a dog need to know to understand what is being discussed?  Or are body language and recalled gestures and facial expressions more important?  Or is it a combination of all?  I am no expert in these matters but simple observation points toward a combination of words, locality and familiarity.  For instance, if I say to Chloe, my little Aussie/Doxie mix: “Find Sally (her sister).  It’s walk time”, she will always do several things:   

She will run upstairs to Sally who is probably lolling on my bed; the two of them will come down excitedly play-fighting (which they always do when they are going out); she will then run to the place where her collar is kept and wait there while I attach it.  After that she nips at my feet while I slip on my sneakers (her herding  DNA?) and finally she runs to the wall peg near the front door where her leather leash waits.  It has been this way for years – all set in motion by my suggestion of a walk.

In recent times, now that I am at home every day because of the pandemic, I don’t actually have to say anything.  I can look at Chloe, raise my eyebrows and have a questioning expression.  She’s off to fetch her sister!

I have more anecdotal evidence that I think makes body language as important as actual words in communicating with your dog.  I have a silly habit of often talking to dogs in the Afrikaans language, something I picked up from my dad who grew up on a farm in South Africa where the farmworkers spoke Afrikaans to each other – as well as to my grandfather’s Mastiffs.  So my Dad spoke to the dogs in Afrikaans too and the habit stayed with.

My dogs know what I am saying even though we are an English-speaking family.  I have found myself lapsing into Afrikaans at the shelter too  (“goeie hondjie” for “good puppy” – “hou op boetie” for “cut it out bro” – “kom hiersô” for “come here”)  and the dogs seem to  know exactly what I mean.  They may be the only bilingual pooches in Marin although I know there are other volunteers who speak excellent Spanish, French, Italian and German.   It’s possible the MH dogs are becoming multilingual.

Conversing with dogs has another element that is growing in popularity: reading to them.  The dogs at Marin Humane have their own library in the cupboard where their supplies like poop bags, treats, toys, leashes and collars are stored.  No kidding.  They really do have a library and volunteers are encouraged to take their books into the kennels and read aloud.  The shelter provides little folding stools so that everyone is comfortable.

High school students – eager to volunteer but too young to take the dogs out for walks – come to the shelter runs and read to them.  They should bring their own study texts – like “Unraveling the Calculus” – so that they can cram while they entertain the dogs.  The pooches don’t care what the books are about.   They enjoy the company, and find the human voice relaxing.  But who knows?  Maybe the calculus amuses them.  The humans?  Reading is good for them too.  Don’t they say books open the creaking windows of the mind?

Inspired by this I have started reading to my own dogs at home.  We began with the London Journal of the 18th Century Scottish diarist James Boswell.  Sally looks bored and Chloe nods off quickly.  Boswell did some naughty things in London so maybe they will show more interest when we get to those passages. Maybe a picture book would be more suitable.