Dogs can learn somewhere between 50 and 250 words or phrases. So that means humans will sometimes speak in code to avoid getting a dog excited. One of the most common forms of code is spelling the words. That works until dogs learn the spelling of those words. Wait. Dogs can spell?
Anecdotes of dogs learning to spell
I have known dog owners for 25 years or more who said their dogs knew how to spell. Or at least they could spell their favorite words.
And spelling words had limited effectiveness at best on my own dog, the late, great Angel. Angel absolutely seemed to know what T-R-E-A-T meant, as well as W-A-L-K.
But that doesn’t mean she could spell every word we said. The behavior we were observing has another explanation, and it fits well with our current understanding of how dogs’ brains work.
Dogs do not remember events the same way that we do. Instead, they associate things. The reason your dog gets excited when they hear the word TREAT is because after about 50 times of hearing the word and getting something to eat, they learn to associate the sound of that word with a pleasant experience. And after 50 times of hearing the word BATH, if they don’t like baths, they associate that with a negative experience and might try to hide. And it’s not just the word either. They may associate the sound of running water with that experience and hide every time they hear bath water running. My mom had a dog who did.
Nothing really stops them from associating the spelled out word with that experience as well, if the spelled out version of the word happens in close enough proximity to the good experience, and it happens 50 times.
They don’t remember the individual events of getting something to eat, or getting to go on an adventure. But they remember the pattern of sights, sounds, and smells leading up to those pleasant things.
Intonation may also matter
In the case of Angel, she would sometimes get excited when we spelled out any word. So it wasn’t just the sound of the words or the sounds of the letters that she was reacting to. I think she was also catching the tone and the way we were speaking. Kind of like how my mom’s dog associated the sound of bath water with baths.
Maybe spelling words triggered her associative memory, or maybe the way we talk and behaved was triggering her associative memory, more so than the fact we happened to be spelling words.
One time, I played a trick on her and got her excited when I said I was going to go pay the B-I-L-L-S. For obvious reasons, I had never spelled that word around her before. We got a laugh out of it, but obviously, there is no reason for a dog to get excited about paying bills. Nothing about that is fun or exciting to a dog.
Don’t worry, I didn’t do that more than once. I had no reason to mess with my dog like that. But as something of a professional computer hacker, it was natural to spell that word around my dog and see what would happen.
So that’s the reason I don’t buy into the idea that dogs can spell. They can learn a limited number of spellings the same way they can learn a phrase “like go for a walk” or “go outside.” But they are really only fooling us and to thinking that they know how to spell. They won’t learn enough spellings to enter them into a spelling bee, so don’t get any ideas like that.