Can a dog understand more than one language? I’ve been trying to figure that out for years!
I’m a native English speaker from Canada living in France with my French husband and our six-year-old Dachshund mix, Pinch. Pinch was born and raised in France, and I don’t know how many times friends and family (and perfect strangers) on both sides of the Atlantic have asked me, “So, is he bilingual?” They are being tongue-in-cheek, of course, but nevertheless it got me to thinking. Can a dog actually be bilingual?
I’m not claiming to be an expert on dog psychology, but here are a few things I’ve come to realize about “raising” a bilingual dog:
I’ve always found it most effective to associate a verbal command with a hand gesture when training my dog. At a very young age, Pinch learned to park his butt on the floor when I told him “sit” and simultaneously pointed at the ground. Enter my French-speaking husband, Max. I’d watch him try in vain to get Pinch to sit, much to my own amusement.
“Assis!” he’d order. “Ah-ssis!” Pinch would look up at him with soft dewy eyes and blink slowly, tail wagging. I told my husband to repeat the French word for “sit,” but to use his pointer finger as well. Pinch sat.
I’ve realized that I could be telling Pinch to “watermelon,” but as long as I make the pointer-finger gesture at the same time, he’ll sit. Likewise, if I announce the word “walkies” with an excited tone, he’ll start jumping around and run for the door. If I say “walkies” (or its French equivalent, “balade”) with a monotone, he won’t move from the couch.
I’m aware there are many dogs out there who can and will respond to individual commands without a particular hand gesture or tone of voice, but for Pinch, he could really care less about what language I’m using if he recognizes what I’m doing with my finger or how happy my voice is.
For the most part, the people I interact with on a daily basis are French. As a result, I’ve decided that it’s only fair that I speak French to my dog when we’re in their company. If anything, being able to reprimand Pinch in French allows me to show my dinner guests that I know it’s not OK for Pinch to be barking out the window or humping his stuffed raccoon. I wouldn’t want to scold him in English and have my French friends think I’m actually encouraging Pinch to lick the cat’s behind rather than dissuading him.
A quick poll of my expat dog-owning friends showed a similar opinion. If you are in the company of French people, and you can speak French yourself, it’s just more polite to yell out “Viens là!” than “Come here!” at the dog park. At least when Pinch ignores me completely, the French people will know I tried.
Interestingly enough, my husband uses these occasions to smugly show off his English vocabulary to other French people. “Stop barkeeeng!” he’ll scold if Pinch gets mouthy, turning to his friends and sighing, “Ugh, you must speak English to this dog if you want him to understand!”
Owning a dog in France has also shown me how I could improve my French. I consider myself fluent now, but back when I got Pinch, I was nowhere near as comfortable with the language. As a new dog owner, I knew all the necessary questions to ask my rural vet in English, but in French, it was a whole other story.
As I comforted Pinch on the examining table during his first visit (patting his head and whispering, “It’s OK, it’s OK,” much to the vet’s bemusement), I struggled to ask her for a flea collar. I finally turned to an elaborate mime routine that involved me pretending to choke myself (a collar, darn it, a collar!) followed by me running my fingers up and down my arm and scratching myself like a scabies patient.
A few embarrassing minutes later, the vet caught on, I got my flea collar, and I resolved to always carry around a pocket French-English dictionary with me to any future vet visits.
Raising a bilingual dog has nothing to do with raising a bilingual child. I don’t plan on telling Pinch all about Niagara Falls and maple syrup, or teaching him the words to the French national anthem. I’d be happy if I could just send my dog off to my French mother-in-law’s for the weekend and have him respond to her “Tais toi!” as well as he listens to my shouting “Be quiet!” (which is to say, not at all). If anything, owning my first dog in a French-speaking country has provided me and Max with a lot of funny stories and fond memories, which we’ll keep long after Pinch is gone.
I do not think my dog is actually bilingual (and he has selective hearing in both languages), but I don’t care. Despite all the difficulties and confusion we’ve faced, at the end of the day, all we really need is the language of love.
Does your dog “speak” more than one language? Tell us about it in the comments!
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