The average dog can understand 165 words, according to Dr. Stanley Coren, author of numerous books on canine intelligence.

Am I the only one who’s surprised at (and a bit skeptical of) that number?


That’s a lot of words.

I’ve always told people that my dog Oreo is intelligent. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion. Maybe it’s in the way he makes eye contact with me when I speak to him. Maybe it’s because he seems to pick up on commands rather quickly. But I’m not so sure Oreo knows 165 words.

So I did some brainstorming. I created a list of words I’m almost certain Oreo knows because of how he reacts to them on a daily basis. The list went something like this:

Treat, cookie, water, dinner, food, breakfast, walk, outside, go pee, hiking, ride, run, stay, sit, lay down, off, no, shake, take it, kitty, come here, up-up, get it, down, get back, toy, ball, rope, tire, bear, toy, squirrel, good boy, bye-bye, follow me, this way, naughty, roll.

That makes 39 words.

Then I thought of all the names we call him (poor guy): Oreo, Orie, Bubba, Stinky.

43 words.

And then we have the names of his family: Mamma, Daddy and the cats, Bobo and Arrow.


Then there are longer phrases he knows (I’ll count each phrase as a word): have a good day, I gotta go, see you at lunch, time to go to bed.



Then there are words he doesn’t like: flea, comb, bath.


And there are words that aren’t really words, but I think should still count: boney (bone), tuggy (tug-of-war), kissy, huggy, beddy, watins (water).


I could probably come up with a few more, so let’s say I get to 65 words I think Oreo knows; I still have 100 words to go before I hit the magic number.

Which makes me wonder: Am I not giving my dog enough credit?

The problem is, it’s hard to test your dog’s understanding of a word. I tried.

The investigation started out OK. I began with simple commands that Oreo usually does for treats. He responded to the following commands: sit, lay down, up, down, off, shake and stay.

After that, things went downhill.

Having run out of treats, I began to give him little bits of cheese and crackers. So I decided I’d see if he knew the difference between the two. Holding one in each hand, I instructed him to eat the cheese, then the cracker, in turn. To my surprise, he did. But was that just a coincidence?

I noticed our cat Bo looked a bit slighted on the sofa, so I gave him a bit of cheese, too. Then all of Oreo’s attention was focused on the cat.

So it wasn’t exactly a controlled scientific experiment.

Oreo watched as Bo delicately picked away at his snack. Meanwhile, I collected all the dog toys in the house and laid them out on the living room floor. I wanted to see if Oreo could (and would) differentiate between his toys — his bone, ball, rope, horn, tire, bear, fox-squid and Charlie (Charlie Brown doll). But it was pointless. He had lost interest.

How long is an average dog’s attention span, Dr. Coren?

“Get your ball,” I instructed as I knelt on the living room carpet. “Ball. Fetch the ball. Oreo. Ball.”

Oreo sniffed around the living room, searching for more cheese. I sighed.

“What about your rope? Wanna play tuggy? Oreo, rope. Get your rope.”

Oreo looked at me for a moment then continued looking for cheese. If dogs could shrug their shoulders, I think he would have.


So it remains a mystery. I have no idea how many words Oreo understands. For all I know, he could be privy to my deepest and darkest secrets. Or maybe he really only knows a few commands.

Either way, I suppose the extent of one’s vocabulary is only one indicator of intelligence. Oreo, and other dogs, also understand the world through body language, scents and tones of voice. And I’m sure I’m not the only dog owner to think her dog is especially in tune to emotions. Oreo always seems extra attentive when I’m sick or sad, ready for an extra cuddle. I can only hope he understands the words “Thank you.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...