Publish at April 20 2022 Updated April 28 2022

Animals that listen and are not stupid

Do our animals understand us?

Getting along like cats and dogs, giving your tongue to the cat, being dumb as a post, being chatty as a magpie... What do all these idioms have in common?

The fact that they are about communication and that the protagonists are animals. But by the way, do our four (or even more!) legged friends have a real ability to understand us, "their" humans or is it just a matter of sound?

Like a snake charmer, sit cross-legged, get out your flute, start playing the melody and wait to see if the snake will come out of its basket...

Magic words?

If you have or have had a pet, you have certainly spoken with it. Admittedly, this is probably not a great philosophical discussion, but rather a monologue suitable for arousing the animal's interest. Can we say, however, that our furry friends understand some words better than others?

Just judging by their reaction, we can believe that they do! For example, when it comes to eating time, they are generally all very receptive. So the words "play, eat, candy, dinner, yum yum" are like triggers in both of my cats! Both of them come running, whether they are asleep or not. These are the magic words. Is it the fact that I pronounce them in a certain way? Is it the sound of each of these words that differs? Impossible to know precisely since, alas, our little friends are not able to answer us.


Based on the idea of researching communication with babies (humans!), Catherine Reeve, an Irish psychologist, conducted a study in 2015 by the which had the subject of developing a vocabulary measure for use by dog owners, the ultimate goal of which was to study the links between language and executive functions.

For this study, a list of 172 words classified in different categories (toys, food, commands, outdoor places) was given to 165 dog owners. Among them were both pets and professional dogs (service, police...). The task of the owners was to check which word(s) their canine companions consistently responded to.

The difference was compelling: 120 words on average for service dogs versus 80 for domestic dogs. It was also noted that these numbers can vary depending on the breed of the animal. To say that professional dogs have better executive functions would be going too far. However, this finding is interesting from a cognitive standpoint, even though "training" a puppy, as a future police dog might be for example, is expensive and very selective.

However, as studies are still continuing today, it is certain that if they manage to prove the link between early word reaction abilities and later behavioral and cognitive abilities, the game would be changed for our animal friends. We could "better" train them for later.

Polyglot animals?

What about the man who whispered in horses' ears? What about Caesar Milan, the man who talks to dogs? What about Pavlov and his conditioning? What about the fakir and his snake? Do our animals understand us? No one knows!

On the other hand, another study by Mexican researcher Laura Cuaya (for the University of Budapest, Hungary) sought to demonstrate how sensitive animals were to different languages.

She asked herself this question after moving to Hungary with her Mexican-born dog. Did the latter understand that the people around him now spoke a language other than Spanish?

To demonstrate this, she conducted an experiment on 18 dogs. She isolated them and, wearing a scanner, played them excerpts from The Little Prince in their "native" language and in a foreign language they were not used to hearing. And then, surprise, the brain reactions were unmistakable.

Without going into neuropsychological detail with terms of primary and secondary auditory cortices, the dogs made a difference. The researcher concluded that "We have discovered for the first time that a non-human brain can distinguish languages." This is explained by the different sounds and accents perceived between these languages. Moreover, it was even determined that it was the oldest dogs that perceived these distinctions the best. Not so dumb, our animal friends!

Ah... and if you're wondering about the fakir and his snake, I'll repeat what his biology teacher told me when I was in middle school when I asked him that question after he said in class one day that snakes were deaf (!).

Me: What about snake charmers, then? The snake is not deaf because when it hears the melody, it comes out of its basket!

Him: The truth is that the snake charmer has the habit of threatening and hitting his snake if it ever doesn't get up when it sees the flute, that's why it obeys! Lie or truth, no idea, but at least the story will surely have made you smile!

Sources and illustrations

Can dogs distinguish their master's language from another never heard? Geo, Jeremy Doctor, January 2022,

Your dog can understand what you're saying-to a point... The Sun, Sophie Jacques, January 2022,

Pixabay, and

Crotalus - The rattlesnake - Wikipedia -

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