We all know that the way that dogs communicate with each other is quite different to our own, and that dogs are a lot less reliant on verbalisations to get their point across or understand other dogs, although this doesn’t mean that dogs aren’t often quite noisy regardless!
Dogs have their own forms of communication with other dogs, incorporating verbalisations, scents, sight and touch, and they moderate their communications with humans to try to help us to understand them better. When it comes to how we in our turn communicate with dogs, we often expect them to understand much more than they actually do, particularly when it comes to speech and language.
A lot of us talk to our dogs as a form of one-sided conversation, and because dogs are adept at picking up our mood and cues, they tend to respond appropriately even though they don’t actually know what is being said. Dogs can, of course, pick out certain specific words from our conversations that have particular meanings for them – like their own name, the terms used for common commands, and other words they often seem to learn all on their own, like “walk” and “food!”
English speakers do of course tend to train their dogs in English, for obvious reasons, and dogs in other countries (or with owners who speak other languages) are usually taught commands in the local dialect.
It is of course obvious that a dog can learn a vocabulary of terms and words from more or less any spoken language – but can they learn commands in two different languages? Can dogs be bilingual? Read on to find out.
As mentioned, dogs can pick out certain individual words from conversations that have meaning for them, and they also pick up on the tone and mood of our speech. The words that they can identify also need to be spoken in a consistent tone and manner for dogs to recognise them, which is one potential reason why dogs might sometimes follow a command from one person but not another, if the command is said in a different way – whether this is due to the emphasis placed on the word, or the accent it is spoken in.
Language to your dog is just a collection of different sounds, and for a dog to recognise and respond to a certain word, it has to have a mental association for them that gives it meaning and garners a specific response. We tend to use obvious descriptive words for commands, like “sit” and “stay,” but the actual words you use don’t matter, and you could train your dog with commands in any language or even a made-up version of your own, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t pick up these commands just as quickly, all other things being equal.
The human stream of chatter probably sounds like a mish-mash to your dog in the main part, but they can hear fine differences in tone and nuance, and they may also recognise if a language sounds very unfamiliar to the one that they are used to.
For instance, a dog that is used to hearing a lilting, melodic accent like Welsh would probably find the sound of spoken German quite unusual.
However, for languages that sound similar, your dog probably can’t tell the difference – and whether or not they can tell two distinct languages apart rather than just hearing the different sounds made by different speakers is less clear.
When training a dog from scratch, you can train them in virtually any language of your choice, but how about trying to teach a dog in two languages from the get-go, or trying to teach a dog that already follows commands in one language to follow those same commands in another one too? Things get a little more confusing here – for both human and dog!
Using two different commands for one desired action is apt to leave the dog confused about both of them, and they are less likely to exhibit command compliance reliably in both languages. Some dogs may follow one language command but not the other, or follow both now and then – but using two terms for one desired action, whether those two terms be in the same language or not, is apt to confuse all but the smartest of dogs, and compromise their ability to follow commands.
When it comes to training a dog that follows commands in one language to start to follow commands in a different language instead, the results can be variable. This effectively means training an adult dog from scratch as if they’d never learnt their original commands to begin with.
This can be more time consuming and potentially less reliable than training a puppy or a dog that has never been trained in any language, but plenty of dogs manage to re-learn a whole new vocabulary of skills in a new language when needed – such as for dogs adopted from abroad.
However, again, using the old command terms and the new ones interchangeably will probably hinder rather than help progress.