Six Hundred Words - Developing a

Lexicon for Dogs


An old saw in the books about training dogs is that they can only understand about six hundred words. I used to point out what a rich vocabulary six hundred words might be, given reliable statistics which suggest that 90% of all English discourse involves a vocabulary of about one thousand words. I never considered, till now, the dubiousness of the "statistic" itself. How does one count a dog vocabulary? And what does "understanding a word" mean? Do dogs "understand" the words 'a', 'the', and 'an'? They usually understand 'get', which is defined by one of the longest entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. To illustrate my point about the meaning of meaning, consider an email that Crom recently sent to a woman we know. The circumstance was that she had sent her leftover beef scraps home for him from my birthday lunch. I've changed one detail, pretending that her name is Kathy:

Deer Catty,
Thin cue for the meet, and for hell ping my dead bee odor. Sorry for the words. I tired to say it write. Good thin guy have spill chicken.
Crom (dog)"1

There's a message of thirty-three words, sixteen of them spelled wrong (or are they?) If you fix the "spelling", what remains is five sentences (I'm counting the compound as two). Three are "human" sentences ("Thank you for the meat,"."I tried to say it right", and "Good thing I have spell checking") and two are "dog" sentences. That is to say, "Thank you for helping my dad be older" is not a construction any human would use, although an English speaker can figure out, with a little context, what it means. Likewise, "Sorry for the words" doesn't sound human either, and we aren't absolutely sure what it means: "Hope you understand?" "I'd rather wag my tail, but I can't do that on the computer." "I know I'm not saying this very well." "Please excuse the garbled vocabulary." That last may seem like the "best" paraphrase, but his confident remark about the spell checker actually suggests that he doesn't know about the garbling of the vocabulary.

If I were to say to you, "Have you garbled the twister?" I would be using five words you understand in a grammatical sentence. Do you understand what I am asking? "Understanding" is vastly extended beyond vocabulary. In fact, I would argue that linguistic "understanding" must include the ability to handle new linguistic events: unfamiliar vocabulary, garbled syntax, bad grammar, unfamiliar concepts. One day when Crom and I were walking along a lakeside, he veered toward the lake, obviously planning to take a quick dip, which is normally fine with me. As it happened, the lake was nearly drained and he would have had to traverse a ten-foot stretch of mud to get to the water. He was not on a leash, and I was not paying my usual close attention. I said casually, "We can't go in the water today." He turned immediately and came back.

No big deal until you try to figure out what, exactly, he understood. Normally, I would have said, "No water." That's clear, unambiguous, and couched in the lexicon every dog learns. It follows the principles of dog communication I'm about to describe. But I didn't say that; I spoke to him as if he were a human with a fully robust vocabulary and human creative language skills. The behavorists' last resort, that he changed his own mind coincidentally with my comment, may be the answer, but the shift was too immediate for that to sound convincing. And I didn't, contrary to what the nervous behaviorists like to think, give him a subliminal cue. No leash to imperceptibly tug, and he wasn't even looking at me to pick up the subtle body language with which dogs manage to comprehend the meaning of "Lassie, go to the shed and get the third wrench on the left from the lower tool rack, oil it and bring it to the guy under the sink." Maybe I smelled of disapproval. But if so, those odor molecules dispersed real fast....

Inflection? Give it a rest. I didn't inflect it as a command. It was an observation, no more imperative than a remark about the weather. If it were inflection, how would he figure out what was being forbidden? He didn't "know" I didn't want him going in the water, because normally it's ok. And if he "knew," by the way, it seems to me that believing a dog can process (little emotionless robots that they are) "I want to do this thing and he doesn't like for me to. He is disapproving so I'd better not do it" and then claiming that what the dog just did is not "thinking" is, well, not thinking. I don't buy the "He just understands inflection" argument anyway. Since when is 'inflection' not part of linguistic communication? "He wrecked the car?" does not mean the same thing as "He wrecked the car."

How did he understand and what did he understand? I don't have the answer, except to assert that the burden of proof is on the folks who say he didn't understand the words, not on me. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and likes to eat bugs, it might not be a cat.

But that's all introduction. What I want to write about is how to construct a English vocabulary for dogs. There are some governing principles I've never seen written down.

  1. Use words consistently. A "walk" is going out together on an outing. We don't talk about it unless we are about to do it. I never say, "We'll go for a walk in a couple of hours." Why bother? Dogs don't understand future tense anyway. The only part of the sentence a dog is likely to get is the false part: "go for a walk." I never say, "I'm sorry, but we can't go for a walk right now." Instead, I will say something like "We can't do anything right now," and avoid mentioning the "anything" that might twist his understanding of the sentence. The training books will counsel you to use ritualized behavior. Ritualize the language, too. When I leave for work, I say the same thing to him every morning: "Be a good boy now. I'll back back soon." If I go out without saying that, it means I'm not leaving long term, and he doesn't pay much attention. When I come back, from retrieving the mail, for instance, he's not interested. If I say it, and then come back in because I forgot something, he is surprised.
  2. One word per meaning. When I say "bad dog," it means that Crom, personally, has done something wrong. I don't say "damned mutt" or "bad puppy." And I don't call other dogs "bad." Crom attracts testosterone junkies (human and canine) because he's big, black, and confident. He's a bit too confident, so he ignores the aggressive dogs sometimes. He's also gregarious, so he will approach another dog, giving it the benefit of a doubt, when I've decided I don't want to chance a bitten jowl. In those situations, I call the potential problem a "trouble dog." He usually won't approach a dog I designate as "trouble." I've actually seen him change his approach body language to something more reserved, when he doesn't fully agree with me. I also use "trouble" to refer to things he hasn't done yet which, if he does them, will get a "bad dog" designation. I don't accuse him of being a bad dog for thinking about being bad; leave that to the priests. I tell him he's going to get in trouble, and he looks worried.
  3. Don't joke about serious words. I never call him "a bad dog" as a joke. When I joke with him that way, the operative word is "evil." So he knows I'm not serious, no matter how convincing my "inflection" might be. If you consider how easy it is to make jokes like that with humans and have them not know you are "just kidding," this advice is simple common sense. My ex-wife, bless her heart, joked with him the same way she would joke with a human, and it always struck me as unintentionally cruel. She would tease him about going for a walk when she had no intention of taking him. It sounds even meaner than it was. I'm confident she simply forgot that the subtleties of human humor were beyond most dogs. We developed two rules: Never lie to a dog, and no irony.
  4. Talk a lot. It's no secret that human babies who get lots of verbal stimulation (what we have called, with some disapproval, "attention") grow up more verbal (and maybe even, in some sense, smarter, especially if, as the cognitive scientists sometimes argue, language is intimately entangled with intelligence). When I feed Crom, I tell him I'm feeding him. When I want him to do things, I tell him, even if I'm also showing him. When he looks at things, I tell him what they are. He knows what a creek is, and a lake, and how they are different. He knows what a horse is, and a magpie, and what "up" means. We had to learn "up" so I could tell him where his squirrel went. Interestingly, "up" is a word that we do use in multiple senses. He knows that it can mean "jump up here" as in get in the car, "jump up here" as in "put your paws on my chest" (which is a different behavior, keep in mind. He doesn't just put his feet on the car seat or try to jump into my arms. And he knows that it means "look up for what you are seeking." The secret, by the way, to teaching this concept was a hook in the bedroom ceiling that fascinates him. I caught him looking at it and explained that it was "up." Eventually he got the idea that an "up" could only be seen by tilting your head, and then when he tilted his head he saw the squirrel....
  5. Listen to both of you. When you talk to a human, you watch for visual comprehension cues. Do the same thing when you talk to a dog. If he's walking twenty feet in front of me, intent on the trail, and has just done something good, like avoiding being killed by some guy on a bicycle, I will say, "What a smart dog!" and he often responds with an ear adjustment that tells me he heard. We have a phrase for "You weren't careful enough" which I need to be more careful with. Just now, he was sitting beside me, pushing his head against an ear rub that I was providing with half attention while reading something on screen, and his pushes finally got my arm overextended at the shoulder joint. I said, without thinking, "Be careful. You're going to hurt me." Then I realized what I had done. His demeanor changed and he stopped "taking" the ear rub. I looked at him, and he had that worried look he gets when he has accidentally hurt someone. (And a pie in the face for anyone who says "worried look" is anthropomorphizing. I don't have time for idiots.) He had heard the words (not the inflection) of "You hurt me!" immediately after the phrase, "Be careful," which I use to warn him that he might hurt me. I apologized.

Crom does not "obey," he behaves. He understands what is wanted, and he chooses to do it. In the beginning of our relationship, I tried using the old training words to handle a broad range of occasions, and it didn't work. When I say "sit," he wants to know why. That isn't because he's willful or disobedient, it's because I often say "sit" frivolously, and he knows it, even if I haven't caught on to my own linguistic sloppiness. So I came up with some words for urgent "Sit." The idea originated with the wonderful trainer who helped Crom and I learn how to work together. We use the standard security-dog command "Out!" for "Stop everything!" especially if he is intent on doing something I don't want him to do. And for the more typical urgent stop, getting him to freeze so some clumsy bicyclist doesn't run over him, I use a three-note whistle, a backwards chickadee call that he can't possibly confuse with anything else (though it may confuse the attending chickadee). And both things are reserved. The whistle only gets used when he needs to freeze till I say "Ok." I never say "Out!" to him unless I mean it and only "it": "Emergency! Stop in your tracks and sit down!" So he knows that what I need is important, and he does it. That is behaving, not obedience. Crom is a good dog.

— Mick McAllister


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