The Mystery of Canine Language Capabilities

Have you ever wondered how many words a dog knows? When I write about Buddy the Beagle, I tend to humanize his ability to process English. After all, I am a fiction writer. In my stories, Buddy listens intently to his humans and picks up new words from their conversations.

Contrary to my imagination, my real life interactions with Buddy pair words with action. If we’re on a walk and he tries to gobble garbage, “No” is accompanied by a tug on his leash. When I want him to “lie down” or “roll over,” I use hand signals in addition to verbal commands. “Good boy” is usually accompanied by a treat.

Truthfully, my dog reads more into my body language than my actual words. He also recognizes my tone of voice and facial expressions to understand what I mean. If I smile and excitedly say, “Let’s go for a walk,” Buddy trots to the door.

Dogs process speech in much the same way as human infants do between six and fourteen months. With repetition, both dogs and babies associate certain words with actions. Dogs do listen to human speech, but they don’t consider different letter sounds important. A growing vocabulary requires phonetic precision.

All of this makes sense, unless your dog is the smartest dog in the world. A border collie named Chaser proved dogs can differentiate between words. Chaser’s owner, Dr. John Pilley, taught psychology at Wofford U. (no joke)

After he retired from teaching, Dr. Pilley talked to a sheep rancher whose border collie knew how to retrieve specific sheep from the field by their names. When Jeb was told to “go get Millie and Tillie,” the dog picked Millie and Tillie out of a herd of one hundred sheep and brought them back.

When Chaser was two months old, Dr. Pilley started teaching her proper nouns, beginning with a blue ball. He used a strategy called errorless learning, which means setting up an environment in which the subject cannot fail. He would name it, show it to her, say “catch blue” and throw it to her.“He’d put it in front of her and say “find blue.” On the third day, when she could retrieve the ball from another room, he knew it was time to move on to another object. At the end of the fifth month, Chaser had learned forty words and kept them in her long-term memory. During the course of Chaser’s lifetime, she learned one thousand nouns. Dr. Pilley and Chaser changed the field of dog intelligence using the power of play and positive reinforcement.

Reading about Chaser inspires me to start a list of words Buddy knows.

  • cookie
  • carrot
  • treat
  • popcorn
  • kibble
  • bacon

Hmm… are you noticing a pattern? Food is one category of language Buddy understands. And he can always find it. Like many dogs, Buddy is also good at math. I love this quote by Phil Pastoret.

“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two of them.”

Are you tuned into your dog’s language abilities? Leave a comment and let me know the details.

How Your Dog Feels About You

Are you one of the 69 million people in the United States who own a dog? If so, you probably make sure your pet’s needs are met. You adapt your schedule to walk your furry friend at the same time each day. You might bring Fido a doggy bag from your favorite restaurant. And of course you take him for an annual checkup with your vet.* You love your dog! But have you ever wondered how your dog feels about you?

Emory University scientists studied the emotional states of dogs. Using MRI, the scientists measured the nueral responses of dogs as they were exposed to familiar and unfamiliar odors. When the dogs smelled the familiar scent of their owners, the reward center of the animal’s brain was activated because they associated the smell with pleasure.

In a similar study, Budapest scientists learned the canine brain responds positively to the happy sounds of their owner’s voice. These studies are scientific proof of what you probably knew all along. Our canine friends are social, emotional, beings that respond to human smells and voices. Think about all the ways your pet tells you he loves you.

  • From the minute you walk through the front door, your pal is right there to greet you. He might pick up his favorite toy and carry it to you.
  • Your dog wants to snuggle with you on the couch. He feels safe with you and considers you part of his pack. It doesn’t matter if you just got out of bed and have morning breath. Your dog loves you unconditionally.
  • Your pet looks at you with loving eyes. Making direct eye contact is considered aggressive action in the canine community. When two dogs meet, one will look away in deference to the alpha dog. Not so with human interaction. Your dog looks at you with eyes that are relaxed and tender.
  • Your four-legged friend just can’t seem to get enough of your company. He follows you everywhere.
  • Your dog shows empathy when you cry. He tries to comfort you by putting his head on your lap or licking your hand.

So, if dog’s are such social and emotional creatures can they experience jealousy?

Again, research supports the theory. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE showed that canines tended to display significantly more jealous behaviors when their owners showed affection for a stuffed toy dog. For example, the canine tried to force himself between the owner and the stuffed dog. As anyone with more than one canine companion may witness, some pups don’t take kindly to their owners doling out affection to another dog.

My upcoming children’s book Truckload of Trouble explores the theme of love and jealousy. Buddy the beagle’s life seems perfect until his human, Henry, takes in Jack, a stray cattle dog with blue fur. Henry gives Jack plenty of attention and Buddy feels jealous. Buddy loves Henry so much. He will do anything to gain his approval. When Henry takes Jack to the dog park and leaves Buddy at home, the little beagle knows he must do something drastic!

I wrote this story during the height of the Covid pandemic. During this extended period of social distancing, I had plenty of time to watch my beagle and let my imagination soar. I have written three books from Buddy’s point of view, and may have developed the ability to think like a dog. (I hope I don’t start licking the floor for crumbs.)

What do you appreciate about your dog? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment. Please join my book launch team by sharing this post. Thanks!

*feature photo of Enrique Duprey, DVM (a.k.a. Dr. Smiley) pictured with Buddy at Corrine Drive Animal Hospital in Orlando, Florida.

Are Coyotes Dangerous to Dogs?

Spring is in the air! The bees are buzzing, the birds are singing, and the coyotes? Well, the coyotes are increasing! Yes, April is breeding month for coyotes. Look out pet owners, because from now through August, coyote parents will be more protective of their young.

Have you seen any coyotes in your neighborhood? My neighbor encountered the coyote pictured above when she was biking around Lake Baldwin. Like many urban areas, Orlando has seen an increase of coyotes in the past few years. Habitat encroachment forces them to migrate to cities in search of food. These animals have adapted to city life so well they are known as “urban coyotes.” Their population continues to thrive because efforts to relocate them fail to work. Coyotes are smart and quite successful in finding their way back. In fact, coyotes are so established in Florida they’ve become naturalized—meaning they are part of the ecosystem.

Should you be concerned? Yes. As part of the ecosystem, coyotes will prey upon whatever they can find. And although their diet mainly consists of rodents, rabbits, fruit, and insects, they might eat a smaller domestic pet (under twenty-five pounds) if they have an opportunity. Fortunately, the frequency of a coyote eating a dog is rare.

If a dog is eaten by a coyote, it is usually due to risky behavior on the part of the owner. Coyotes are more active at night. When a pet owner leaves their dog outside unattended in the evening, trouble could arise. It’s also not a good idea to walk your dog at night using a retractable leash. A six foot leash is much safer. Remember to carry a flashlight with you after dark.

Did you know dogs are attracted to coyotes? Since they are genetically similar, sometimes dogs become excited by the presence of a coyote and chase after it. If a tragedy ensues, the coyote is always to blame, even though the dog initiated the encounter. Coyotes can carry rabies. If your dog or cat gets bit by a coyote, take your pet to the vet immediately.

Coyote management is largely about people management. Coyotes are here to stay, but there are many things people can do to help manage the dangers. Our pets can be better protected if we do not feed ferrel cats outside. We are basically asking the coyotes to keep coming around.

I’m excited about the release of my new children’s book, Truckload of Trouble, on June 7 from Elk Lake Publishing. Buddy the beagle escapes under the backyard fence in search of Jack, a stray dog who decides he’s better off living on the street. When the two dogs encounter a coyote, Jack puffs out his chest and lets out a fierce growl that scares the coyote away.

Coyotes are usually afraid of people. If you encounter a coyote, do what Jack does. Stand tall and maintain eye contact. Make loud noises and back up until you and your pet are a safe distance away.

Hopefully my post has increased your awareness of the dangers of coyotes. As a nature lover, I value wildlife. But I also value my pet, and want to help other pet owners protect their fur-babies. I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment!

Are Two Dogs Too Many?

For all of our pet-owning years, we have continued to be a single-dog household. I have a friend who told me she owns two dogs because she never wants to be dog-less. What an interesting idea. However, acting upon the idea probably entails a life-long commitment to owning two dogs.

Did you know almost fifteen percent of the U.S. population owns more than one dog? When I take Buddy (our beagle) for a walk and encounter people with two dogs, I wonder how they manage.

My wondering led me to the inspiration for my third children’s book, Truckload of Trouble. The story begins when Buddy the Beagle’s friends gather in the backyard to celebrate his birthday. Buddy’s life seems perfect until his human, Henry, takes in Jack, a stray Australian cattle dog. Henry admires Jack for his appearance, strength, and athletic ability. Buddy is jealous of all the attention Jack receives and wants him to leave. Henry’s wife, Jen, disagrees with keeping Jack because he digs up her flowerbed and makes messes in the house. She feels like “two dogs are too many.”

I chose an Australian cattle dog for this book after reading about the breed. They are active, intelligent, and mischievous when bored. Buddy and I met Moxie (pictured above) at a book signing event in Longwood, FL. I loved meeting an actual Australian cattle dog, but Buddy was kind of shy and walked the other way.

While writing this book I realized how important it is to consider the needs of each animal before adopting more than one dog. An owner needs to consider the following:

  • Which dog breeds get along well together?
  • How much space and exercise does each dog require?
  • Does my daily routine allow me to give the right amount attention to each dog?
  • Do I have the energy to train a second dog in the rules of the house?
  • Can I afford the food, vet bills, etc. of more than one dog?
  • Who will care for my dogs if I need to travel?

Although I do not answer all of these questions in Truckload of Trouble, the book touches upon responsible pet ownership in an entertaining way. Children ages six to nine will enjoy my next book in the Tails of Blueberry Street series coming soon from Elk Lake Publishing.

Do you own more than one dog? Leave a comment and share your advice on the topic.

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