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Dogs Can Associate Words with Objects, New Study Shows

Dog parent holding ball up to dog
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Do you ever feel like your dog can understand what you’re saying? You may be right. 

As dog parents, we can teach our pets to respond to basic cues like “come,” “down,” “sit,” or “stay.” But researchers in Hungary recently found that dogs can learn to associate certain words with specific objects (1). 

The study attached 18 dogs to a non-invasive EEG (electroencephalogram) procedure that measured each dog participant’s brain activity and registered their brain waves. The dog owners said the names of objects that were familiar to their pets, such as a ball or frisbee. They then took turns showing their dogs an object that matched the description and then showing them objects that didn’t. 

The research team watched each dog’s brain scans and recognized patterns in their brains when the words spoken did not match the objects that were shown to them. Essentially, the dogs showed a surprised reaction in their brain when they were told an object was a ball but were shown something different than what they were expecting. Next, the researchers plan to study whether the same thing occurs in other mammals beyond dogs.

So what does this mean for dog parents?

“This new finding is exciting because it suggests that our dogs have a better understanding of our language than previously thought,” says Dr. Rhiannon Koehler, a Kansas-based veterinarian. “Your pet might actually know the word for their favorite toy or the words ‘bed’ or ‘leash.’ They could know your name!”

The bond we have with our pets goes beyond language, says Dr. Koehler, but it’s compelling to know that dogs might understand some of what we’re saying. Teaching dogs specific words could come in handy for training, play, or safety reasons.

“You can use the knowledge that your dog might know the words for specific objects to teach them new tricks, like fetching specific items,” Dr. Koehler says. 

She suggests using positive reinforcement to try to teach your dog new words. For example, if you want to teach the word “ball,” hold up the ball and say the word “ball.” When your dog interacts with the object, reward the behavior with delicious treats and affection. Begin moving the ball further away, saying the word, and then rewarding the interaction again.

“Eventually, your pup may begin to seek out the object when it’s mentioned,” Dr. Koehler explains. “Over time, you can move toward intermittent treat rewards. You should always reward positive behaviors with praise and affection.”


  1. Marianna Boros, Lilla Magyari, Boglárka Morvai, Raúl Hernández-Pérez, Shany Dror, Attila Andics. Neural evidence for referential understanding of object words in dogs. Current Biology, 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.02.029