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Should Dogs Learn a Foreign Language?

Many service and competitive dogs are taught commands in a different language.

Key points

  • Police and service dogs are often bred abroad and trained using non-English commands before they are delivered to their new owners.
  • Transition to the dog's new home may be easier if their first-learned language is retained.
  • Using languages other than English potentially also prevents confusion in working dogs due to utterances by people other than the trainer.
Ilmicrofono Oggiono (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Ilmicrofono Oggiono (CC BY 2.0)

I was at a conference for police dog handlers where I had just finished giving a talk on how to read the emotional state of dogs. The hotel in which the conference was being held had made itself dog-friendly for the event and many of the police officers had brought their service dogs with them. The lobby was filled with dogs and their handlers. But as I viewed the scene, I had a momentary feeling that I had been thrown back into the time of the Tower of Babel. While I heard the expected commands of "sit" and "down," I also heard handlers giving their dogs commands in German, French, Czech, and Hebrew. This was puzzling to me since I knew that the vast majority of the attendees at the conference were from police forces in the Western United States.

Why Some Service Dogs Don't "Speak" English

This was on my mind when I attended a reception early that evening. So I raised the issue with several police dog handlers. The answers I got were interesting. First, they explained to me that many of the dogs that were used for police work in the U.S. were bred in European countries. One explained to me, "The German Shepherd dogs bred in North America are simply too physically unsound. They are bred to have sharply sloping backs and that impairs the strength of their hindquarters and their ability to move quickly. So if we want a sound and solid working German Shepherd we get them from places like Germany, Belgium, and the former Czechoslovakia.

"By the time we get the dog it has already had some basic training, but the commands it learned are typically in German, French, or Czech. So the rationale that many forces use is that the dog already knows those commands and it seems that it would make the transition to their new working life easier to simply continue speaking to the dog in the language that it already knows. The handler doesn't really have to know a second language since there are only about six basic commands and an additional half-dozen associated with the actual guard, search, or attack work which have to be learned in that other language."

Another officer chimed in: "There seems to be a second benefit in training the dogs to respond to commands in a language other than English. Specifically, it prevents confusion. Imagine that we are pursuing a suspect who is trying to escape capture. Suddenly that individual turns and yells 'Down!' If the dog is well-trained he just might drop flat on hearing that command. That could give the suspect time to evade us and escape capture. Of course, we normally try to train the dogs so that they only respond to commands given by one specific handler, but there is always the chance that hearing a command given in an authoritative voice might trigger their trained reaction. The chances of that kind of miscue are considerably lower if the dog has been trained in a language other than English."

Problems in the Obedience Ring

I mentioned these discussions to a group of dog trainers and obedience competitors when I returned home. One commented that she always trained her obedience dogs in German. She explained, "I started doing that after an incident in an obedience competition. My dog Lolly was at the other end of the ring and I was directing her to go over the high jump. In the next ring there was a dog handler with a very powerful voice who was trying to down his dog on a drop on recall exercise. He gave a very loud command 'Down!' and of course my extremely well-trained Golden skidded to a down position in front of the jump. So we failed that exercise and disqualified for that trial. That upset me and since that time I have been training all of my dogs in German. I think that it is highly unlikely that anyone in the next ring will suddenly give a loud yell of 'Platz!' which could cost me another failed trial.

"There is, of course, a downside to this kind of training. I used to be able to hand one of my dogs to someone else with the expectation that they could control them. But since my dogs are not responding to the basic commands in English it's not so easy anymore. But then there are only five, or maybe six commands that the dog needs to respond to if they're not being worked in the ring: 'sit,' 'down,' 'heel,' 'stay,' and 'come,' will do. Fortunately most people can pick those simple German words in a few minutes if I really need them to help me."

Taking Things Too Far

Another trainer laughed and said, "Well, I ended up training a dog in German, for a completely different reason. A man brought me his new Rottweiler pup to train. I wanted to see if the dog knew any kinds of simple commands already so I called to it 'Come!' The guy then said to me, 'Don't talk to him like that. I want him to be trained in German.' I was a bit puzzled so I asked him why he wanted the dog to learn commands in something other than English. He explained to me, 'Well, Rottweilers are a breed that was created in Germany, so it only seems sensible that he would have a genetic predisposition to understand and respond to German commands more reliably.' If you believe that kind of thinking, I suppose that it would explain why Irish Setters are so difficult to train. We should be speaking to them in Gaelic!"

Once again I found myself thinking about the tale of the Tower of Babel.

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