Dogs have to learn English before they can understand us

The Whole Dog Journal was recommended to me by a local kennel owner, so I subscribed to their email newsletter. In early June, they ran this great article talking about talking to dogs.

“Try to remember that you have to help your dog understand your cues.

“I was volunteering at the shelter last Saturday, and in the course of the day, I showed several dogs and puppies to several different potential adopters. It struck me at some point that almost every person who takes a strange dog or pup out into a “get acquainted” room or grassy run will almost immediately tell the dog (or pup!) to “Sit! Sit! SIT! Siiiiiitt?” It’s as if they always assume the canine knows what “sit” means and is being willful in not responding.

“It’s SO difficult for people to understand that dogs don’t know what we’re saying – and it speaks to our comfort and familiarity with them that we wouldn’t expect a chicken or a turtle or a camel to “Sit! Sit! SIT!” upon hearing the words. You wouldn’t approach a person in Laos and say, “Excuse me, can you tell me what time it is?” And yet, just about everyone seems to expect EVERY dog or puppy to instinctively understand and respond to spoken English.

“What if someone – a human, or an animal of another species, even! — approached you and began barking, “Fwick! Fwick! FWICK!” and then appeared to get sort of angry because you just looked at them puzzled? Would you want to continue to try to figure out what this other animal wanted? *I* wouldn’t!”

Dogs are not native English speakers, but they can learn. A while ago I wrote about Chico and his lobster. I’m pretty sure that he now knows the word ‘lobster.’ He surely knows the names of the different pieces of agility equipment – we work on it and he is able to go do the tire (and not the jump next to it) when asked “Where’s the tire? Show me the tire.” And he knows ‘car’ – when a car is coming it’s my saying “Chico, it’s a car. What do you do for a car?” that gets him to my side. In fact, if I don’t say anything he is likely to stand in the middle of the road and look at the car, or to wander across the road right in front of it. He’s no longer charging at cars baking furiously, but the whole thing needs a bit of refinement.

We’ve all heard of or met dogs that learn the word ‘walk.’ I’ve heard of dogs that learned the meaning of the sounds ‘w-a-l-k.’ They also learn that putting on our running shoes instead of our dress shoes means there’s a good chance that a walk is coming, that jingling car keys means someone is going somewhere – dogs are finely attuned to our movements, more so even than we are (it’s so easy not to be aware enough of the subtleties of of my own motions and misdirect Chico during an agility run – stand up straight at the wrong time and he’ll come back to me instead of doing a jump, not straight enough at the pause table and he won’t stop for the required five seconds), but I argue that they can learn what some of our crazy sounds mean. But they do have to learn. And everyone learns better through positive reinforcement.

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One Response to Dogs have to learn English before they can understand us

  1. Mark Sherman says:

    I agree. My dog has a vocabulary of about 10 to 15 words. I’m working currently on teaching my dog, Persia – left turn – right turn. She is learning slowly, but when she goes left when I tell her, it is a wonderful feeling. I suggest all owners’ start with sit, slow, slowly, stop, go, calm, relax, eat, good, bad, up down……….try it. You may surprise yourself.

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