Teaching Your Dog English (or other) As A Second Language

You bring your new puppy home and right away want to begin training your new puppy so you say “Fido! Come! Or “Spot, sit!”

Everyone wants his or her new puppy to sit when asked or come running when called the first day the pup enters the home.

Think about this for a moment.

What language does your dog speak? English, French, Italian, Hebrew, Cantonese? The answer is, none of the above.

Read more about the learning process for dogs here .

I’m sure anyone who has ever been to a country where his or her mother tongue is not spoken, can relate. If your dog doesn’t understand your language, how is he going to understand what “sit” means? Or “come”? Or “Fido” Or anything else you are going to ask.

Your dog, in a sense, is coming into your home from another country. He has a different language. HIs language is visual. Ours is spoken. You don’t understand his and he doesn’t understand yours.

Have you ever noticed how intently your dog looks at you when you are talking to him? He is trying to figure out what you want by watching your face and gestures. It’s your job to train your dog and teach him vocabulary where each cue (command) has a specific behaviour associated with it.

For example:

“Fido “ the dog’s name means turn in my direction. That’s all. Nothing more.

“Sit” means put your bum on the floor.

“Come” means run to me

“Down” means lie your body flat down on the floor.

Sit cannot and will never mean get the ball. Down will never mean get up on the couch. Each cue (command) has a specific meaning.
Many trainers, myself included, will often work with hand signals and lure a dog into position, or capture behaviour (rewarding a behaviour as you see it happen without prompting it) many times before adding a cue. We want to make sure the dog is doing the behaviour we want before we attach a label to it.

Why? To avoid the following scenario.

Your dog is sitting still, you call him, “Fido, come!” and he doesn’t move. That is not because he’s ignoring you or being defiant. It’s because he hasn’t been taught the act of running to you is called “come”.

Think back to the comparison of being in a country where your mother tongue is not spoken. You are sitting at a quiet café drinking your morning coffee and someone says, “come over here” in a different language. You will probably look towards the source of the sound, but that’s about it. Until the person gestures or otherwise encourages you to come, you will not know what to do.

After a few repetitions of hearing that word associated with the corresponding behaviour the odds of you responding correctly in that circumstance will increase. It won’t be perfect but you will guess correctly more often than not.

Imagine you are just beginning to figure out what that new word means and you’ve gotten it right a few times. Now, the person is using that word in a sentence. I don’t know about you but when I hear a new language, I can’t tell where one word ends the next begins. It often sounds like one run on sentence to me.

Apply that same concept to interacting with your new puppy because it’s the same thing. We use a language our dogs are not familiar with, expecting them to understand and do as we ask.

All dogs know how to sit, lie down, come running to you and sit still (stay). Just watch them. You will see them offer these behaviours on a regular basis.

What we want is for the dog respond to our cue when asked. We don’t actually have to teach them how to do the actual behaviour. We do need to teach them what it’s called so we can ask for it when we need to.

It’s not uncommon for people to think their dog understands a cue when in fact the dog is guessing. They do this based on gestures, context and patterns of behaviour (your behaviour).

One of the associations your pup makes right from the start is the sound of the food bag and the food bowl appearing. Most people will say sit before they put the bowl down and therefore believe the pup understands the word “sit”.

Try this the next time you put your bowl down. Say any other word and wait to see what your dog does. Say it once and wait.

I am willing to bet your dog will sit at some point.