Things Dogs Understand

Once in a while, I hear people ask things like, "Do dogs remember us when we're not home?" And it is true that we can't literally read their minds, at least, not without a lot of science equipment that I really wouldn't know how to use anyways. But dogs do communicate with us, and as someone who has spent a lot of time living with dogs and getting to hear from them about what's on their mind, I want to share my thoughts on some things that dogs understand.
Do dogs remember you when you're not there?
Yes, dogs definitely remember you. If you are a regular person in this dog's life, there is no doubt about that to me. Ten minutes after you've walked out of the door, a day after you've walked out of the door, a week after you've walked out of the door, you cross their mind now and then.
Dogs have object permanence--that means, they understand that things continue to exist even when they're not in their direct sight. Show a treat to a dog, and then very obviously hide this treat behind your back, and they will probably sniff around you for this treat.
Which, actually leads me to another point, about "when you go away." You're probably not entirely gone to them, either: if you live somewhere with a dog, then the dog can smell you all over that place. Sure, you're not there to play with them and entertain them, but you haven't disappeared completely. If they lay down on your bed or on the couch, it's kinda like you're still there with them a little bit. And if you watch any videos of "what dogs do when we're not home," this is something that happens a lot.
Do dogs understand mistakes?
Yes, dogs understand mistakes. Humans aren't the only animals who make mistakes: dogs mess up too.
One game that I enjoy playing with dogs, is to show them a treat, and then put my hands behind my back, hide the treat in a random hand, and then show the dog both closed hands. What they are *supposed* to do, in theory, is use their nose, and sniff out which hand has the treat. Sometimes a dog for sure will do this, and tap on the correct hand. But, other times they are eager and just kind of guess, and sometimes they make a mistake: they tap on the wrong hand. I open the hand to show them that it is empty, there is no treat in there. Realizing that they tapped on the wrong hand, usually they quickly, unashamedly, tap on the other hand. Process of elimination, they made a mistake but this next one is surefire.
I don't think dogs dwell on mistakes as much as we humans sometimes do. Like, I believe they do remember them, but I don't believe that most dogs are lying around thinking of that time you accidentally stepped on them. I believe that if you and that dog are living a fulfilling life, then they are much more likely to be lying around fantasizing about their next meal, or recollecting all the smells they smelled on your last walk.
Do dogs understand apologies?
Yes, dogs understand apologies. Maybe if they're a puppy, this is an idea that they still need to learn about. But if they are an adult dog who has been around caring humans, then they understand a lot of social concepts. They can understand what it means when something concerning happens because of a human, and then that human takes on an apologetic voice and offers them pets and hugs.
If you apologize to a dog, it's probably not falling on deaf ears.
Do dogs understand when you call them stupid but in a friendly voice?
Yes, dogs do understand words, not just tones. This is especially true if the dog has someone in their life who talks to them in plain human words a lot.
I knew someone who would do this misguiding thing a lot: she thought it was really funny to say to the dog, "You're so STUUPID <3 You're dumb and bad yes <3" The entire time she was saying those kinds of things, the dog would be attempting to be polite and pay attention to her, but would also be giving me some VERY strong side-eye, asking me, "Is she for real? Are you going to help me out here and stop her?"
Dogs understand words. Dogs understand a lot of human language, since they're around it so often and it does effect them. They do know singular words like "Walk?" or "treat," but they are also capable of learning grammar and an impressive vocabulary, and are indeed also experts at understanding tone and the meaning behind words.
Do humans remember you, understand mistakes, understand apologies, and understand the truth behind mixed messages?
Sometimes! Humans and dogs are able to do a lot of the same things. True, humans wouldn't be very good at sniffing for bombs or at running around obstacles super quickly. But, humans do sometimes think about others even when they're not in the room. Humans do sometimes realize that someone else did something by mistake, instead of meaning to do it. Humans do sometimes recognize and accept apologies, and do sometimes understand when things aren't adding up.
It is true that humans can fail to do these things a lot of the time too. But, whether an individual human does or doesn't do these things in every given situation, I think we still have examples of humans doing it often enough that we can say they are capable of these things at least some of the time.
Closing Thoughts
Dogs understand a lot! This article is really, really, really only scratching the surface. They are a part of our lives, and in their lifetimes, they learn to navigate these human ideas. Sure, they might not learn how to do your taxes for you, but as far as day to day social interactions go, they're usually very knowledgeable on those kinds of things.
Article written by Alissa Dogchurch (April 2024)

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