Dear Labby, Are Dogs Bilingual?

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Dear Labby_oldDear Labby,
 
My friend, who lived in Germany for three years has a dog who understands both German and English. Can I teach my dog to be bilingual?
 
Dog Linguist
 
 

Dear Linguist,
 
This seems like a simple question to answer, of course they are. They are not only bilingual but dogs can be multilingual since they don’t rely on language in the same way humans do.
 
The reality is that dogs don’t understand English or Spanish or French or whatever “language” you are speaking. Dogs comprehend the sound you make, your inflection, facial expressions and overall body language. You can use the command “sit” or “sientate” or “kowabunga” as the command for having your dog sit. It doesn’t matter what word you say, your dog is going to equate the command with the behavior you reward and remember that.
 
Of course they can learn multiple words that mean the same thing, although the more variation you add to your commands, the more confusing it’s going to get for your dog. Many folks combine commands with a hand signal and dogs can learn a hand signal and a spoken word. But learning two different words to mean the same thing can be a challenge. It’s doable, especially if combined with a hand signal since dogs are so visual.
 

 
But why confuse your dog? Dog trainers recommend using simple, consistent commands to train your dog. When you want your dog to sit, don’t say “Bowser, please sit down…come on now, sit…Bowser, sit down“. Just look at all the different words you used there, how is your dog supposed to distinguish the command you want him to follow? Did you want him to sit or come or lie down or what? See how confusing it can be?
 
As far as being bilingual, dogs don’t have a spoken language, their language is visual – body language. So, teach them to sit to whatever word you want, it doesn’t matter.

 

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23 Comments

  1. Our German Shepherd retired K9 was trained using German. We learned a few basic commands for him, but he also reacted to English.
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…BFTB Channel 7 NetWoof News July 13, 2015My Profile

  2. They definitely can learn multiple commands that mean the same thing. In our house, it was frustrating for awhile because some family members used different commands during Haley’s training. I think maybe it’s harder to train humans than dogs, lol!
    Elaine recently posted…How to Teach Your Dog the Off CommandMy Profile

  3. When my daughters first started learning Japanese, they taught both the dogs we had at the time their basic commands. In fact , Suki ONLY knew her commands in Japanese for a while. I always loved the reactions we got from people when they found out the dogs were bilingual.

  4. And let’s not forget that dogs are also exceptionally talented at ignoring you in any and every language when they feel so inclined.

  5. my dogs respond better to the sit and down command if I use a hand signal, but that’s also how I got them to learn it so they could really careless about the sound.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Where Are We At With Glory’s Breeding? Part 4My Profile

  6. Haha! Had to laugh at Will and Eko’s comment. Yep, so true!

    Such great points here that we can use whatever language or made-up sound or word we want for various commands. Dogs won’t know what “language” we’re speaking.
    Lindsay recently posted…Petra Pets Natural Dog Chews – Beef Tendons, Pig Ears #GiveawayMy Profile

  7. The police dogs in our town are taught to obey only commands in German. The idea is for them not to be confused by bad guys giving them commands in English. They just ignore English commands.
    jan recently posted…Things aren’t always what they seemMy Profile

  8. Wow! Interesting! haha!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
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  9. My hubs likes to joke that all dogs speak French – but that’s just because he speaks French and is such a dog lover. I recently met a guy who had taught his dog all the commands in Greek. I thought that was interesting, but then he said it was because he didn’t want the dog to get commands from anyone but him. Not sure it’s a great idea to have your dog only follow ONE person.?? Don’t know… I just know if a dog is charging across the street at me, I’d like to be able to yell STAY and not have to worry about what the Greek/German/French word is for that! 🙂
    Jackie Bouchard recently posted…Marriage Is Not “Work”; It’s More Like a Game of Bitey-FaceMy Profile

  10. We are all bilingual. We use German and English commands depending on the situation. Katie even woofs in German and I howl with a slightly British accent 😉
    Emma recently posted…Off The Wall Folks I Met RecentlyMy Profile

  11. We always joke that our pups Missy & Buzz are bilingual since German is my first language & English is my hubby Ian’s 😉 We taught them most commands in English though.
    Barbara Rivers recently posted…FitDog Friday: Working on K9 Core StrengthMy Profile

  12. Of course dogs can be bi-lingual, that is of course unless that certain dog is a uppity standard poodle who has his own agenda for listening and paying attention. Not naming any names, mind you, just saying 😉

  13. Keep it simple seems to be a good rule of thumb when it comes to commands. Luke gets confused on his words sometimes, he responds to hand gestures much better, or just knowing by where we are or what is around what I want him to do. Such as if we’re in the kitchen and the cabinet is open, he can figure out if I give him a command that I want him to close the cabinet. If he’s confused at what I want, he’ll just start rotating through all of his tricks until he hits on one that works! 🙂
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  14. Jax is bilingual as young as he is – he understands both English and Yelling! LOL
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