Exploring how dogs associate words and sounds
By Catalina Barrios
When it was time for my son to start school I decided to enroll him in a French immersion program for junior kindergarten and switched him to a fully French-language school in senior kindergarten. With my son now speaking, writing, and reading in three languages – English, Spanish, and French – I know it has been one of the best decisions I have made.
I have always wondered if dogs can be bilingual or even multilingual. Can dogs learn more than one language? Let’s find out…
Dogs don’t understand or rely on languages in the same way as humans do. They learn to associate certain words with certain things regardless of what sound it is. The more we say a word to them, the more they will get used to it. It turns out, Get Leashed has met a few bilingual and multilingual dogs whose parents each speak a different mother tongue.
Dogs do not understand English or any other human-created language entirely, but they do understand sounds in any language. For example, after telling my dog, “Siéntate” (sit) she has learned to associate this word with a behavior and ends up sitting when she hears the word. She understands when I ask her to sit both in Spanish and English.
When we learn a new language, it takes years of practice to learn how to write, read, and speak it. This is different for our fur friends.
All a dog needs to understand when learning a new language are the keywords that apply, such as sit, stay, come, stop, etc.
When you teach a dog a new word in a different language it will take them time to understand what the word means, as they are associating it with a new sound. The more you tell them that word the more they will associate it with an action or command.
Your dog doesn’t understand that you are speaking Spanish, English, French, or another language. They learn the sound you make when you speak, your tone, facial expression, and body language. Most important, they understand what is expected upon hearing the word.
When I tell my dog, “Siéntate,” or “Sit,” she knows what I expect her to do after she hears these words.
Your dog has the ability to learn new words regardless of the language, but it is important that you are consistent with the words that you use for specific commands so they know that “sit” means sit down and not another action. You don’t want to confuse them in this training.
Perhaps you shouldn’t teach your dog a variety of languages as it may be confusing for them. More than three languages may be overwhelming for your dog, but training can be a way for you to bond and spend time together.
Dogs don’t know the difference in words when they are taught commands. For example, you could even teach your dog to sit when they hear you say, “happy.” They won’t differentiate what language it is but will associate the word with a sound and an action.
Do you speak to your dog in more than one language? Share your dog’s favorite trick or command with us in the comments below.