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How many commands can a dog learn

By BBC Maestro

Last updated: 09 November 2023

Most of us chat away to our dogs a lot of the time – and they could be understanding more than we actually realise. Dogs are able to pick up on a surprising amount of our language, and it looks like there’s more room in their canine-human lexicon than many of us realised. 

In this article, we take a look at our dogs’ amazing ability to understand human words and the best way to teach them more. 

Why do dogs need to understand “human”?

On the simplest level, the basic dog commands such as “sit”, “stay”, “down” and “come” are essential for your pet’s safety when you’re out and about; and of course, the first thing we teach our new puppy is their own name. Not only are these command words essential for safety and wellbeing, but they’re also the beginning of the bond between dog and owner.

In his BBC Maestro dog training course, expert dog trainer Steve Mann prefers to use the term “cues” to “commands”. After all, our relationship with our dog is a two-way street, and we don’t talk to our friends in stern imperatives. As Steve puts it, “Your dog is your best friend, right? So that’s how we will treat them at all times”. Be clear, be concise, but don’t sound aggressive. 

Learning new words and tricks is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog. If our canine companions have this innate ability to understand human language, shouldn’t we be making the most of this to enrich their (and our) lives?

How many words can a dog learn?

How many words does the average dog know? Stanley Coren is a US psychology professor and a leading expert in canine intelligence. In his seminal 1994 work, The Intelligence of Dogs, he writes that a typical dog can learn around 165 words, and some super-bright sparks can pick up closer to 250 human terms. As an interesting comparison, a typical two-year-old (human) child knows about 200 words.

Like a human baby, your dog learns by association. Nouns are the easiest words for both pups and toddlers to learn, as they’re easily associated with an object. Because we begin by teaching dogs cue words rather than simple nouns, it could be said that dogs get off to a more sophisticated start linguistically than we humans do.


How many commands can a dog learn at once?

Dogs can learn only one command at a time. So, while your dog may be a linguistic genius, don’t move onto the next word until you’re sure they’ve grasped the current one. If your pooch is a quick learner, you can still power through new words, one at a time.

Communicating with your dog is all about clarity, and we don’t want two different cues (“sit” and “down” for example) to become confused. It’s harder to disentangle a confused command than it is to teach it in the first place!

How many words a dog can learn seems to depend on their breed. Let’s take a closer look at which types of dogs are the fastest to pick up human words.

Which dog breed learns commands the fastest?

The most intelligent dog breeds are (in order) border collies, poodles, German shepherds and golden retrievers. These sparky pups are keen to learn as well as being naturally intelligent and will pick up new cues really quickly. 

Border collies were bred as herding dogs, reliant on responding to a series of cues. Poodles, interestingly, were originally bred to hunt ducks, so again, have a working dog background. German shepherds and retrievers are both famously loyal and eager-to-please working breeds, and are a real pleasure to train.

But that’s not to say other dogs won’t easily pick up linguistic skills, too. It might take a bit more time and patience with some pooches than others, but every dog gets there in the end. If you learn to work with your dog’s innate abilities and build a relationship of trust, you can achieve a lot  together.

How to teach your dog words

Now for the fun part: teaching your dog words. Dogs love to learn and are keen to please their owners, so teaching them new cues or words is thoroughly enjoyable.

Let’s assume that your pooch knows the basic words that all dogs need for everyday life (the sits, stays, comes and downs, and so on). How did you teach them these words? By repetition, positive reinforcement and reward, and we apply the same training techniques when we’re widening their vocabulary. 

You can help enrich playtime for your dog by introducing the names of their toys, so let’s take a closer look at how you teach a dog to recognise a noun. The name of one of their favourite toys is a good place to start. We’ll use a teddy (named, originally, “Teddy”) as an example. Here’s how you teach your pooch that their best plushie is called Teddy.

  1. Show and tell. Hold Teddy up to your dog, while saying “Teddy”, in a clear (but not strict-sounding) voice.
  2. Hide and seek. Pop Teddy under a blanket (with his little head sticking out so he’s visible) and say “Find Teddy” or “Where’s Teddy?”
  3. Praise and reward. When your dog finds Teddy, give them lots of praise.
  4. Repeat. Carry on hiding Teddy each day, gradually making his hiding place a bit trickier. Keep saying “Find Teddy” or something similar as your dog is searching. Keep up the enthusiastic praise whenever Teddy is located.
  5. Test their understanding. Now your clever dog has successfully found Teddy over several days, it’s the right time to check that they’ve really learned what the word “Teddy” represents. Gather up 5 or 6 toys and put them in a row. Ask your dog to “Find Teddy” again. If they do, that’s great news: rearrange the toys a few times so they can have fun picking Teddy out of the line-up. If they don’t identify Teddy the first time, simply go back to hide and seek for a bit longer.

You can now go on to gradually introduce more nouns into your dog’s vocabulary, which helps to make playtime more fun and rewarding for you. Hide and seek is a great game for mental stimulation, and is a handy one to have up your sleeve when the weather’s looking a little drab. 

It’s a good idea to periodically retest their knowledge. As you teach your pup new words, keep checking back on their understanding of earlier learning. With Big Ball, Tennis Ball, Chewy, Mouse and Slipper also all in play, will they still remember Teddy’s name?

You can move on to teach your clever dog more tricks, knowing that their linguistic understanding of the commands is actually pretty sharp.

Steve Mann’s online dog training course is full of tips and techniques for successful dog training, including introducing new cues. Check out this fascinating course before embarking on your dog’s new language lessons, to make sure you have everything in place for successful and enjoyable training. 

A collection of BBC Maestri including Julia Donaldson, Alan Moore and Edgar Wright displayed alongside some gift boxes with orange bows

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