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The vexing vocabulary of canines
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Forsyth County News

Many people I know are dog lovers. Even most of my “cat people” friends also own a dog.

As the dog-mom of 9-year old Jazz, a Labrador, and just turned 3-year old Indigo, a Morkie, I am firmly in the camp of the extreme dog lover.

If you’re with me, you know we think of our pets as key family members. They’re like children who don’t argue with you.

Of course, I think our dogs are smart, though we sometimes wonder what goes on in their minds when they do certain things.

Recently, as I was asking them if they wanted a treat, I wondered how many words they actually know.

I got out a pen and paper and jotted down the vocabulary I was sure they knew. Of course, the obvious words were their names, sit, stay (though not for long), treat, stick, rock, outside, inside, upstairs, downstairs, ball, etc.

Then, I wrote down some phrases they respond to such as “go for a ride,” “go for a walk,” “do you want a treat?” “where is your bone?” “give me that,” and others.

As the list came together, I began feeling a bit proud of my canines. I quickly got up to 40 words and phrases before I did a little research to see how my smart pooches compared to the average dogs out there, assuming we would be way above average.

Well, needless to say I was a bit befuddled after reading one study that said the average dog knows 165 words. This made me wonder if I should be worried about the dog IQ in the Robinson household.

I shared this newfound knowledge, which wasn’t entirely comforting, with Paul. He said perhaps the research included words that rhyme with words the dog might know.

For example, our dogs don’t care for squirrels, albeit for different reasons. I don’t like squirrels because they steal the bird food from our beautiful feathered friends. Our dogs don’t like squirrels because dogs don’t like squirrels or any rodent they can chase through the yard.

Both of our dogs know the word “squirrel” and Indigo in particular barks ferociously when hearing it, regardless of whether she actually sees one.

She also barks when you say any word that rhymes with squirrel, such as  “Earl,” “Pearl,” “Whirl,” etc. OK, more words to add to the list.

Indigo’s most-despised phrase is “you can’t go.” She immediately drops her head, trots into the laundry room, and jumps into her basket, looking completely sad.

I don’t know if she’s really sad, or secretly looking forward to a nap and wanting to make us feel guilty for leaving her behind. Perhaps she’s so smart, it’s both.

If she had a better vocabulary, I would ask her.

I also forgot that while our dogs may not know the word for something, they know what many things symbolize.

For example, after Indie gets a bath (which is frequently since she sleeps in our bed), and I pick up her collar, she comes running and barking. She barks until the “bling” is secure around her neck.

My old poodle, Chaucer, used to do the same thing. Dogs seem to know that collar is theirs.

Neither of our dogs know the word vacuum, but I can tell you they know exactly what it is and its sound. They’re both terrified of that machine and hide and shake until I’m finished.

I don’t think their fear of the vacuum cleaner necessarily helps the case for their intelligence, but I reasoned we all have certain fears that are probably irrational.

Just when I decided my dogs may need a vocabulary tutorial session, I read about a border collie whose vocabulary exceeds 1,000 words. That seems impossible.

Paul said he would rather have a dog that could get him a beer out of the refrigerator than a “brainiac” canine.

While I’m not really a competitive person, and never thought of myself as a competitive dog mom, I’m not ready to give up aspirations for dogs with better vocabularies.

One article I read said older dogs can learn new words, just not as quickly as puppies. So I guess you really can teach an old dog new tricks.

I’ll keep you posted on my, well, our progress.


Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at