Can Animals Understand Humans?

Human Animals Communication

Hello, animal lovers and communication curators! Have you ever caught yourself having a full-blown conversation with your pet, wondering if they truly understand what you’re saying? Or perhaps you’ve marveled at the incredible stories of animals responding to human emotions and commands with what seems like genuine comprehension.

The question of whether animals can understand humans strikes at the heart of the fascinating relationship we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re diving into the intriguing world of animal communication, exploring the evidence, the anecdotes, and the scientific studies that shed light on this captivating topic.

About 62% of people claim that their pets understand what they say. Whether or not animals can hear, recognize, and possibly even understand what humans say has always been a profound mystery. Animals communicate with each other for different reasons. A lot of animals are very territorial. They have their own space or territory, communicating to defend that space.

Some animals are predators and bare their teeth when they want to scare other animals, and sometimes they roar. When other animals hear these predators, they warn each other. For example, monkeys communicate different alarm signals for different predators.

They climb into the trees if a monkey hears the alarm signal for a lion or a cheetah. But if they hear an eagle or human signal, they stay on the ground, and animals communicate differently. How do animals understand their community and humans? Let’s discover it!

Whether you’re a devoted pet parent, a wildlife enthusiast, or simply someone curious about the bonds between humans and animals, this journey promises to offer insights, surprises, and a deeper appreciation for our non-human companions. So, let’s go on this exploration together, seeking answers to the question that bridges hearts and species: Can animals understand humans?

Can animals understand humans?

Animals have varying levels of understanding regarding human communication and behavior. Many animals can recognize and respond to specific human cues and signals. Here are a few examples:

Dogs: Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and have developed a strong ability to understand human gestures and vocalizations. They can recognize their names, respond to commands, and interpret human body language. Dogs are known to be highly responsive to human emotions and can often sense when their owners are happy, sad, or in distress.

Cats: Cats may not be as responsive to human commands as dogs, but they can still understand some human cues. They can learn to associate certain sounds, like the shaking of a treat bag or the opening of a can, with food. Cats can also recognize their owners’ voices and may respond to them.

Dolphins: Dolphins are highly intelligent marine mammals known for their ability to communicate and understand complex behaviors. They can be trained to understand and respond to human commands using hand signals or acoustic signals. Dolphins can also mimic human sounds and learn to recognize themselves in mirrors.

Apes and monkeys: Great apes, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, and some monkey species have demonstrated remarkable cognitive abilities and can understand human gestures, signs, and symbols. They have been trained to use sign language and communicate with humans to express their needs and desires.

Horses: Horses are sensitive animals that can pick up on human emotions and respond to subtle cues. They can be trained to understand and respond to voice commands and body language. Horses form strong bonds with their human handlers and can develop a deep level of trust and understanding.

Dolphins are said to be the smartest animals globally, and they proved it in a 1984 study. Two bottlenose dolphins were taught human language. The first dolphin, Phoenix, was trained to comprehend human speech. The second dolphin, Akeakamai, was taught a form of sign language. Both dolphins were taught various words, such as object names, actions, and object modifiers.

These could be combined and rearranged into hundreds of unique sentences to form a command. For example, “Swim to the blue ring” or “Pick up the red ring.” The commands were given to the dolphins using computed generated voices and videos to prevent the Clever Hans effect. Both dolphins could comprehend and execute the given commands at a much higher success rate than what would be considered chance.

Understanding words and simple one-word commands is one thing. But understanding complex three-to-five-word commands and accurately following them is astonishing for an animal. Experiments such as these prove that many animals have an unprecedented understanding of human speech and communication.

Dogs may respond to these sentences, but do dogs and other animals understand the meaning behind those sentences? Or are they well-trained? You may be surprised by what you’ll discover about animal perception.

In 1984, researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California noticed something unusual. They claimed they heard people talking around an enclosure where they kept a Beluga whale named NOC. They were fairly certain it wasn’t anything paranormal. After all, the voices sounded so real.

Eventually, a diver noticed the strangest thing in NOC’s tank. NOC, the Beluga whale, talked to him in an eerily human-like voice. Incredibly, the whale reportedly told the diver to “get out.” That’s because, unlike humans, who use their larynx, whales use their nasal tract to produce sounds, making everything sound all nasally. It’s believed that NOC lived most of his life close to humans and learned to mimic the human voice.

Asian elephants, seals, and parrots have also been imitating human speech. But do they understand what they are saying? In 1891, a German high school mathematics teacher named Wilhelm Von Osten convinced himself that animals could be taught basic mathematics.

He tried to teach maths to a cat, a horse, and a bear. The cat couldn’t care less and was only interested in itself; the bear was downright hostile towards him, but the horse showed great promise. After extensive teaching, the horse, named Hans, learned to tap his hoof in response to numbers Von Osten wrote on his blackboard.

If Von Osten wrote the number two, Hans would tap his hoof twice. If he wrote four, Hans would tap four times, and so on. Spurred on by this success, Von Osten taught Hans to answer basic mathematical equations.

Von Osten would write on the blackboard, “2 + 2 = ?” and Hans would tap his hoof four times. Von Osten was delighted and exhibited Hans to the public all over Germany. During these shows, which Von Osten never charged admission for, the crowd was awe-stricken as Hans correctly answered an array of basic maths equations using his hoof to tap out the answers.

Hans could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and even work out the square root of a number. Hans would correctly answer around 89% of the questions. The “Hans, the genius horse” news rapidly spread across Germany.

A psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, asked to do some experiments with Hans, to which Von Osten agreed. Oskar Pfungst erected a large tent to perform the experiments to eradicate the possibility of Hans being influenced by outside stimuli. Pfungst asked Von Osten to step inside the tent and ask Hans mathematical questions like he usually does as a control test.

As expected, Hans got most of the questions correct. However, Pfungst then asked Von Osten to move a little farther away from Hans while he asked the questions, and subsequently, Hans got far fewer answers correct. Finally, Pfungst told Von Osten to ask Hans questions that he knew Von Osten did not know the answer to. When von Osten asked these questions, the accuracy of Hans’ answers fell to almost zero.

The person asking the question had to know the answer for Hans to correct the answer. These results were extraordinary but exciting, so Pfungst investigated further. He observed Von Osten’s facial expressions and posture while asking the questions.

After asking a question, Pfungst noticed Von Osten’s facial expression and posture change. His face and posture would tense up in expectation of Hans’ answer. However, each time Hans tapped his hoof and got closer to the correct answer, Von Osten would relax slightly, and his posture, expressions, and mannerisms would change.

Hans tapped his hoof enough times to reach the correct answer. Von Osten’s posture and expressions would relax, and he became happier because he was relieved that Hans had seemingly arrived at the correct answer by himself. The horse was receiving small visual clues that acted as feedback. The horse would start tapping as soon as he observed Von Osten asking the question and then tensing up.

When the tension had alleviated from Von Osten’s face, Hans would stop tapping his hoof. Hans was never actually doing any mathematics. He was well attuned to his owner’s visual clues. Von Osten was shocked at this revelation because he was unaware he had provided Hans with these unconscious visual clues.

He genuinely thought his horse was a genius. The results of Pfungst’s experiment enormously affected how all scientific experiments would be carried out. This phenomenon came to be known as “The Clever Hans Effect.”

The Clever Hans Effect, as we know it today, is when an experimenter unwittingly alters the results of an experiment simply because they are expecting a certain result. The simple expectation for something to happen can have huge consequences on an experiment’s results without the experimenter realizing it. These days, necessary measures are taken when working with animals and humans to prevent the Clever Hans effect from altering the results of experiments.

A border collie named Rico was spotlighted in 2004 after being intensively studied by animal psychologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. The researchers showed a great interest in Rico because his owners reported that he could understand over 200 words. A feat previously unheard of in the canine kingdom. The researchers set up an experiment to test whether Rico’s skills were a bunch of fluff or a truly bone-a-fine talent.

The researchers arranged 200 toys on the floor in a room adjacent to Rico’s being held. They did this ten toys at a time. Each toy had a unique name, such as “fluffy” or “squeezy.” Rico’s owner had already trained him to remember the name of each toy.

Each time, the researchers let Rico into the room with the toys and asked Rico to fetch a toy, then another toy, and another until Rico had fetched all ten toys. While the researchers were issuing commands to Rico, they stayed on the other side of a dividing wall, where Rico could hear them but not see them, to eliminate the Clever Hans effect.

In total, Rico successfully remembered and retrieved 93% of the toys. Impressive, but this was only a test of Rico’s memory, not his cognitive function. His ability to use logic and inference as a human. So, the researchers did a second experiment.

They arranged seven items in the room, with an eighth item, brand new, to which they gave a unique name. Rico had never seen or heard the name of this new item before. Amazingly, Rico was let into the room and asked to fetch the new item. He was very quickly able to infer which was the new toy and fetched it straight away.

Rico seemingly used a process of deduction and elimination. This is called “fast mapping,” a process where one can quickly learn a new concept after a single exposure to brand-new information. Human toddlers do this all the time. It’s how they know.

Even more amazingly, Rico could fetch the new toys again four weeks later, having seen them once. Of the six new items Rico was shown four weeks prior, he remembered three of the four weeks later. Interestingly, three out of six are at the same rate adult humans can remember things they saw four weeks ago.

Like Rico, the chaser is another border collie who can reportedly remember the names of 1,000 toys and retrieve each of them. But Chaser has another unique talent. She can recognize verbs. Chaser’s owner, a retired psychologist, trained Chaser from a young age to understand and utilize three verbs: nose, paw, and fetch.

When Chaser’s owner says “paw slinky,” Chaser will go over to the slinky toy and put her paw on it. Similarly, if “nose slinky” is said, Chaser will put her nose on the toy, and when “fetch slinky” is said, Chaser will fetch the toy.

Chaser’s owner can swap the verb and the toy’s name for any one of 1,000 different toys, and Chaser will go over to the correct toy and do the proper action almost one hundred percent of the time. That’s about the same cognitive ability as a three-year-old human child. This also demonstrates something astonishing. Chaser doesn’t simply remember every command. It’s not a cheap memory trick.

Chaser’s brain uses a cognitive function to determine what to do in each situation. This is no different from how the human brain works. However, this is rather basic stuff for an adult human. It amazingly displays an animal’s cognitive ability and logical inference. It demonstrates that dogs understand what we say, provided they can learn these human-like concepts as a puppy. But that’s not different from a human.

Humans have to learn this stuff, too. We aren’t born knowing what “go get daddy a beer” means. As babies, we understand the words that construct that sentence, and then toddlers. We use our brain’s cognitive ability, especially our fast mapping ability, to know what to do when arranging words into a sentence.

Dogs cannot learn as fast or to the same extent as humans. So, realistically, their ability is capped compared to a human. However, they are given the proper education and training early. Dogs can understand at least a small percentage of what you say.

So when you say “time for ‘walkies,'” your dog goes freaking mental. It may not be because they have associated the word “walkies” with running about outside with their beloved owner. There’s some fundamental level of understanding there.

But don’t think you can go and have full-blown, esoteric conversations with your canine buddy. They may understand the odd word or two, but first and foremost, dogs use smell to communicate and differentiate between objects and people.

They’ll understand more of what you’re trying to say to them. Let them sniff you if you roll around in the garden for ten minutes, then if you try to explain why you had such a bad day at work. But we’ve only talked about dogs, horses, and whales. What about other animals?

After all, the spectrum of animal cognition spans the entire animal kingdom. Take Koko the gorilla, for example. Koko is a female gorilla who has learned a modified version of American Sign Language. Koko was taught from an early age and now.

She can reportedly understand and use 1,000 different signs of what her trainer calls “Gorilla Sign Language.” She understands over 2,000 words of spoken English. Koko has been the subject of numerous scientific studies, articles, and books. But whether or not Koko understands sign language the same way a human does is a topic of hot debate.

Some researchers argue that Koko hasn’t mastered sign language and doesn’t understand the words she is signing. They insist that Koko’s human-like sign language abilities result from operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is when someone learns to do something because there’s a reward at the end of it. For example, if you showed a toddler three different colored boxes, blue, green, and red, and placed a sweet in the green box – the toddler would always learn to open the green box in the future to get the sweet.

Koko may have learned to make specific shapes and signs with her hands because she is rewarded. Video evidence showed that the Clever Hans effect also influenced Koko. Her trainers gave her unconscious facial clues to prompt her to make certain gestures with her hands. Despite all this, Koko’s trainers are adamant that there’s more going on in Koko’s head than researchers give her credit.

One piece of evidence suggests a greater level of cognition in Koko’s brain occurred when Koko’s baby was taken away from her. She reportedly signed the word “baby” to her keeper the day after her baby was removed. This is known as displacement, the ability to talk about objects not currently present in the room. Also, we thought it was unique to humans and rarely observed in the animal kingdom.

Also, Koko has been known to talk about new objects that she hasn’t even been taught to sign. For example, Koko has never been taught the sign language for the word “ring.” But Koko combined the “finger” and “bracelet” signs to refer to a ring. A ring is a tiny bracelet for your finger if you think about it. That’s pretty smart going, Koko. Events such as this suggest that Koko better understands her signing words.

We’ve delved into the realms of science, witnessed extraordinary stories of interspecies communication, and perhaps, along the way, deepened our appreciation for the animals that share our lives and our planet. The evidence we’ve uncovered reveals a world where understanding transcends words, where empathy and intuition play crucial roles in the bonds we forge with our animal friends.

While the full extent of animals’ understanding may still hold mysteries, the connections we experience speak volumes about the shared languages of emotion and care. Thank you for joining me on this heartening journey into the depths of human-animal communication. As we move forward, let’s continue to listen, observe, and cherish the silent dialogues that enrich our lives. Until our next adventure into the wonders of the natural world, keep nurturing those bonds with the animal companions who grace our lives, for in their understanding, we find reflections of our humanity.

Read More:

What Makes Humans Different From Other Animals?

How Can Parrots Talk?

Why Can’t Animals Talk?

Julia Rose

My name is Julia Rose. I'm a registered clinical therapist, researcher, and coach. I'm the author of this blog. There are also two authors: Dr. Monica Ciagne, a registered psychologist and motivational coach, and Douglas Jones, a university lecturer & science researcher.I would love to hear your opinion, question, suggestions, please let me know. We will try to help you.

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