Dear Labby, Are Dogs Bilingual?
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?
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.