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How to teach your dog or cat the meaning of words (using behavioural science)

The technique I'm going to tell you about is so simple yet very effective. I'm sure that you are unknowingly using this method and you will learn to recognize it as you read on. We are going to be using the power of association. It is the most common type of learning where an organism starts to perceive contingency relations between events in its environment (apart from habituation). This means they start to see patterns in their environment which helps them predict what will happen next.

For example; if every time a bell would ring, a big scary monster would pop out from behind a door. You would learn very quickly to start running when the bell would ring. I'm sure you would hate that bell too.
If there was chocolates & lots of money after the bell rings, your feeling would be different.

This is the power of associative learning. It takes something that would otherwise mean nothing to you, and pair it with something that would naturally mean something to you. Viola! Over time that meaningless thing is now either positive or negative.

How can we apply this to our pets lives?

Predictability is a very important aspect when you are living in a world where everyone around you speaks a different language. It helps reduce daily anxiety. I highly recommend you start teaching them words, as not only would this build your bond but it would also improve the quality of their lives as companion animals.

The only downside to this is having to spell words out because now your pet understands EVERYTHING! I would still say the pros outweigh the cons. So let's get started:

What you will need:

  1. A pet who can hear (since you are using words but sign language is an option too)

  2. A good memory or a notebook of the exact words you are using

That's it. It's that simple! The only part that requires a little bit of effort is being consistent with it which is why I added a good memory to the list.

The process:

Step 1: List down some words you would like your dog or cat to understand. You need to make sure they are words that can be followed up with some action or a lack of an action. You may want to start off with commonly rewarding behaviours like food, play, affection etc.

Step 2: Start to practice saying the word directly before the behaviour. Studies show that most cats can learn between 20-40 words whereas dogs can learn around 165 words (the top 20 per cent can learn up to 250 words)

E.g. If you wanted to teach the word "Food" you would say it and then present them with the food.

The order of this is important. If you present the food first before you say the word then the pet would be focused on that and nothing else. Also, we are teaching them the meaning of the word by making it a predictor of the actual food.

A very important step to strengthen this learning:

Contiguity: This means how consistently are the two occurring together. Every time you say "food" does the food appear? Is it once a month? Or only on bank holidays?

The more consistently you pair them together the stronger the learning. This is how associations are formed naturally. For example: When you see popcorn just outside a movie theatre all the time, it becomes more closely linked with a movie snack.

Contingency: If one thing helps you predict another and ONLY occurs before that specific thing it strengthens it. So you want to stick to using specific words in specific contexts.

For example: If you said food before the pet's food, but you also say food when you are going to get your own food and also when the food delivery man comes then it would make the association weaker.

Pro Tip: If your pet is used to hearing a word or if you have tried to use it as a command in training before, you should pick a new word. This helps to avoid confusion. Humans talk alot. Stick to single words rather than sentances.

How can you tell if it's working?

This is quite straight forward. If your pet reacts by either approaching you or lifting or tilting their head you can physically see that understanding. I encourage you not repeat words again and again just to get a reaction without following through with actions.

If your pet doesn't react at all then it might need some more work.

Pro Tip: Cats can tend to understand and still not respond but you will see a small ear twitch. I would recommend teaching them sounds instead of words. In my experience this works better.


There you have it. A simple way to teach your pet the meaning of words. I have taught my own dog & cat so many words it's almost like speaking to another human. I can't wait for you to try this.

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