Dogs understand what we sayI found myself observing recently how I communicated with someone who was unable to express himself clearly because of a neurological disorder that prevented him from speak meaningfully. His level of frustration was evident through his gestures and body language as he tried to communicate with me.

It is well known that communication relies on only between 10 and 20 percent of what we say, with tone of voice, or intonation, comprising another 30 to 40 percent. Body language and gestures make up the remaining component of communication. This is what he and I were using to find common ground. There was a great deal of miscommunication and I recognised that I was interpreting what he was attempting to convey through my own eyes and experience.

Fortunately, I had the time to spend with him. Imagine how difficult it is if you are in a caring role with several people you need to look after, or even just care for the same person each and every day.

I am not sure how accurate the transmission was. What I do know is that without our attempts he would have continued to show anxiety and anger and been a danger maybe to himself or to others. By being able to spend that time with him, he became calmer and less agitated and as he become calmer, so did I.

A news article from 2016 confirms that, like us, dogs process the words they hear in the left cerebral hemisphere, and intonation from the right. Dogs appear to be able to distinguish words of praise used enthusiastically compared with those same words said in a lacklustre manner. What’s more, enthusiastic praise lights up the reward centre in their brain.

I was glad I was able to use my body language to share an emotional connection between us. Next time, when someone you know is having difficulty communicating, take the time to work with their body language and remember that your intonation and gestures are much more likely to be what they remember of the encounter.


Knapton, S. 2016. Dogs understand what we say and how we say it, scientists find. Retrieved from

Sue Silcox

Sue Silcox brings sparks of life every day to the aged and those with disabilities with her programs from BrainSparks. You can contact her on to learn more about them.

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