Does it matter which language you use to train your dog? Are our canine companions more likely to respond to commands in a language full of stern, hard consonants than one built on soft, subtle sounds? Surely a language that allows for a short, sharp command is better than one where you might need to construct an entire sentence to ask your pooch to lie down? Can a dog learn a command in more than one language? These are questions I found myself asking when I saw someone mention that dogs at a guide dog training centre close to them were trained in Italian, though they were based in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Supposedly the Italian commands were best suited to training the seeing-eye dogs, while someone else suggested that German orders were the way to go.
On using my Googlefu, I discovered it wasn’t all that uncommon to ponder the merits of training your dog in another language. Some people consider doing it for fun, some dog owners are multicultural families who bring up both their children and pets speaking more than one tongue. Others have adopted a dog from another country and continued to use the commands they were trained with, so they don’t have to teach them all over again.
There are some cases where different languages might not be so much of a barrier. If for example a dog has been taught in German to “sitz” and someone tells them to “sit” they’re likely to know what to do, since there’s little difference in the two words. But are dogs clever enough to understand two different words for the same instruction? It seems that dogs are perfectly capable of understanding more than one language, though “understanding” might be going a bit far. They can attach more than one word to the same action though and can respond to both a word and a hand signal.
Some dogs aren’t even trained using verbal commands and respond only to gestures and body language – and perhaps the infuriating sound of clicker. Service dogs for the deaf, or hearing dogs, are taught to respond to hand signals and pet owners also use hand signals either with verbal commands or on their own. Other working or service dogs can be trained in a foreign language so that it’s harder for someone who is not the owner to give the dog commands. US Government Service dogs, such as police dogs, are often taught to respond to foreign language commands. If your French speaking dog has been taught to “couche”, a stranger’s not going to have much luck telling them “down”, unless they understand a finger pointed at the floor.
There doesn’t seem to be any sort of consensus over which language a dog is more likely to listen to or respond to more quickly. However, most dog trainers seem to agree that it’s tone that matters, so a language that makes it hard to sound stern and in charge might have a slight disadvantage. Perhaps the best thing to do is hedge your bets and teach your hound more than one language. That way, if they don’t listen to your first command, they have another one, two or three languages to ignore!
Which languages does your dog understand?