Any advice for training a dog to comprehend that objects have names, and to learn that commands can refer to objects by name?

We have a wonderful rescue pup that we got at the guesstimated age of 6 months; he's now about 15 months old. He was a stray and didn't understand any (English) verbal commands, but he quickly picked up the concept and has since learned 60 or so commands/tricks with consistent training, some of them within a minute or two of their introduction. He's a smart, agile dog with tons of potential, and we want to help him develop it while he's still young and eager to learn!

The catch: he's great with intransitive verbs (commands that don't have objects, such as postures like "sit"), and figures it out when the command implies an object in context (e.g., "fetch" when you're already playing with the toy you want him to bring), but commands with variable objects expressed verbally, such as "fetch [specific toy]," stump him. He doesn't seem to get that objects and places have names (nouns). Instead, he relies heavily on context, body language, or even smells to figure out what we want, whether it's directions to go to a specific spot or to greet a person or to identify a particular toy. It's clear that he's just guessing when we avoid giving nonverbal cues. He probably thinks his own name is a command meaning "pay attention to me!"

I am confident that once he understands that we build commands with both verbs and objects, he'll be basically unstoppable, but how do we get there?

Thanks for your tips!

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    I think you may be asking too much of canine intelligence. You're probably better off thinking of this as trying to train two similar-sounding commands -- train "ball" and "bone" as the retrieval commands rather than trying to generalize "fetch". There are ways to train a behavior as an extension of another behavior, and a good book on animal training will cover that, but you need to remember that the animal really has no understanding of language, just of cues. Overloading "fetch" just makes it more confusing for them. "Ball bone? Make up your mind.")
    – keshlam
    Commented May 14 at 6:12
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    I can only second keshlam's comment: You should keep your commands to single words and concentrate on the most important one. For your human brain it makes sense to concentrate on the "fetch" aspect if you want your dog to bring you stuff. For your dog's brain the "stuff" aspect is much more important. Once he knows what you mean with "ball", the most logical conclusion is that you want the ball near you, so the "fetch" aspect is redundant and only adds confusion. What else would you tell your dog? "Hide the ball"? I honestly doubt he'll ever be able to understand that concept.
    – Elmy
    Commented May 14 at 7:25
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    I agree with keshlam and Elmy, "two word sentences" is something, human children need a lot of time for. I would assume, that a dog will not learn the mechanism behind, instead it would learn a lot of different unique commands, like "fetchball", "fetchstick", "fetchdisc" and so on. But the amount of different things can be impressive. There was a famous dog in German TV who was able to "name" 100 different toys and bring the exactly one his owner were asking for. One video: youtu.be/L1ybwg1nQeo?feature=shared Commented May 14 at 20:30

1 Answer 1


The replies ahead of mine are all correct, dogs are very intelligent. That being said; they have no concept whatsoever of any human speech patterns, and thus cannot comprehend more than 2-3 word verbal commands. For instance with my heeler, I can say 'ball' and she will just bring her favorite ball. If I say 'rope' she'll bring her favorite tug rope. You have to learn how your pet communicates with you, to understand how you need to communicate with your pet.

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