Dogs obtain a lot of information about the world around them through their sense of smell. As soon as they are let outside, dogs like to explore with their noses to the ground, smelling other dogs, animals, or tasty snacks (that you may or may not be okay with them eating). They can even learn about your age and health from smelling your breath.
However, dogs also use their other senses to gather information from their environment, including visual cues. They learn to recognize faces and according to the American Psychology Association, the average dog can learn and recognize up to 165 words, and some can recognize up to 250!
Your dog’s ability to recognize different words and learn different commands often depends on their age and breed, but the evidence shows that most dogs are intelligent enough to develop a decent vocabulary.
So can dogs recognize their owner’s name?
Dogs can easily learn their owner’s name by associating the word with their owner. However, dogs use an array of senses to recognize their owners. While they are smart enough to be taught their owners’ names, they are more likely to recognize their owners visually and through smell.
Dogs use classical and operant conditioning to learn human words; whether is a command like “sit,” a place like “park?” or their owner’s names. Similar to how they can connect your face and smell being their owner, they eventually can learn to associate your name with your being as well.
Therefore, your name might only be another word to associate with you, but that does not mean it is not meaningful to your dog.
If you want to learn more about your dog’s ability to recognize and know your name, then keep on reading!
Do Dogs Know Their Owners’ Names?
A recent study with 5 Border Collies, a Labrador, and a Golden Retriever using an MRI machine (yes, they trained these good dogs to sit in an MRI machine!), shows that dogs recognize faces. They are very social animals that look to human faces for emotional cues and can recognize smiling and scowls.
Furthermore, dogs are very auditory-driven and react similarly to our voices and vocabulary. How many dogs perk up when you say “walk?” or “park?” before getting in the car to go somewhere? Or maybe your dog can pick out specific toys and perform tricks only with verbal cues.
Chaser the Border Collie has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words, an extraordinary accomplishment for dogs and a testament to the verbal memory of dogs.
If a dog like Chaser can pick one specific toy out of a huge pile, it should go without saying that dogs can probably pick up on our names as easily as they can recognize our faces.
Our voices and the things we say can give dogs a lot of information about our mood, and while a dog’s understanding of language is different than our own, they can easily know their owners’ names. However, it is in a different context than humans know each other’s names.
Instead of understanding that someone identifies as “Bob” or “Jane,” dogs learn to associate simply the word with the specific person. Science has established that dogs recognize people’s faces and can recognize a large vocabulary of words, so it is easy for them to associate certain words with certain people.
How Do Dogs Learn To Recognize Their Owners’ Names?
Dogs do not understand complex sentences the same way humans communicate. If you are having a conversation with your dog, they might pick up on keywords they understand amidst what a lot of dog trainers call “nonsense words”.
For example, when you ask your dog “Do you want to go for a walk?” and they get excited, they probably only understand the word “walk.” But they can learn a lot of those keywords, and our dogs can even learn each other’s names!
They might show similar excitement when they hear their owner’s name. When dogs hear their owner’s name enough, they learn to associate it with the person it is attached to.
With lots of positive associations and good experiences, dogs are often conditioned to learn their owner’s name. Let’s take a look at a couple of learning theories that either unintentionally or intentionally teach your dog to know your name.
1. Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning is a learning theory generally attributed to research done by B.F. Skinner in the mid-1900s. At its core, the basic principle of operant conditioning is that a “learned behavior is followed by a consequence or reinforcement.”
Basically, your dog learns that their behavior leads to a reinforcer, either positive or negative. For example, if your dog jumps on you and your reaction is to ignore it, your dog learns that jumping leads to the consequence of being ignored. If they want your attention, your dog needs to learn that they only get it when they have all four feet on the ground.
What exactly does this mean in terms of a dog knowing their owner’s name? When your dog hears your name and then sees you, seeing you is a reinforcer to help learn your name. Eventually, they learn to associate you with your name, meaning they know your name. Operant conditioning is a great way to teach dogs not just your name, but other objects’ names.
2. Classical Conditioning
Another learning theory that modern dog training is based on is classical conditioning. In the early 1900s, using dogs, food, and a bell, Pavlov trained dogs to drool on cue.
He figured out that dogs would naturally drool when presented with food, and when he paired the sound of a metronome with the food, the dogs started to associate food with the bell, and would automatically drool.
If you have trained your dog with a clicker, it is the same idea! Dogs associate a food reward with the clicker, making it easy to mark the behavior you want to teach!
If you want to use classical conditioning to teach your dog, you simply reward them every time you say your name and they look at you. You can use food, toy, or pets. Eventually, your dog will be conditioned to look for you when they hear your name, and with all the positive reinforcement associated with your name will be very excited to come find you.
How To Teach Your Dog Your Name
Training your dog to recognize your name and other members of your household is a fun game for the whole family!
If I was teaching my dog to know my name and my husband’s name, I would sit with him and ask her: “Where’s Tyler?!” If she acknowledges him, he will be excited, pet her, and give her a treat. Then it is his turn to ask our dog “Where’s Maggie?!” When she acknowledges me I will be similarly ecstatic.
Remember, this is a game. Be fun and exciting! My family did unintentionally teach our border collie this game (through operant conditioning) and I can ask her “Where is Tyler?” and she will go look for him. She knows his name and goes to find him for that happy positive reinforcer.
How Else Can Dogs Recognize Their Owners?
Dogs do not only need their sense of hearing and knowing your name to know you. Knowing your name might be one of the least important identifiers they use to recognize you.
The deaf and blind dog in the video below recognizes his owner without needing to hear them.
This is because dogs do not need to rely on their hearing and sight, but can recognize you by their sense of smell.
Smelling is one of dogs’ most important tools for exploring the world. They recognize their owners and other dogs by their unique scent. Not only can they use their sense of smell to know who you are, but they can tell the gender of humans and the age of other dogs by smelling them.
A dog’s nose is an incredible tool. They have up to 44 times the number of scent receptors that humans have and the olfactory area in their brain is about 40 times the size of humans. Dogs make great trackers, and their powerful nose makes ideal choices for working dogs from medical alert dogs to police cadaver dogs.
They are a giant super nose.
Furthermore, dogs love the smell of their owners more than they love their owner’s name. Just having something that smells like you can be soothing for them.
Dogs are very smart social animals that evolved to be able to blend into a pack. That pack could be a houseful of dogs, mixed animals, and of course their owners. Because they are so observant, they can easily learn their owners’ names simply by being around you and conditioning.
While you can work to train your dog to know your name with classical conditioning, they will likely pick up on your name via operant conditioning and living and spending time with you. It might not seem like it, but even when they are hanging out on the bed, they are always listening and absorbing information.
However, do not worry about your dog not knowing you if they are deaf or are losing their hearing, dogs use all their senses to know who you are. You are a lot more than a spoken name to them. They can recognize you by sight, and most importantly, by smell.
So when they are old, going deaf, and losing their sight, they do not need to be able to know your name to know who you are. Your dog has many ways to know they are sleeping next to their best friend every night.