Can My Pet Learn a Second Language?
Oui! Si! Ja! Yes!
Just as humans are capable of memorizing new words, so too can your dog, cat, parakeet, or other domestic pet.
Here’s the breakdown: Most dogs, on average, know about 165 independent words. Now, pair that with us only giving them about 20 commands with the most popular being: Sit, stay, down, leave-it, drop-it, take-it, come, no, go to bed, shake, roll over, high-five, ball, toy, outside, food. There’s potential for more information.
Now, the item’s proper name doesn’t matter. Allow me to explain. Whatever you decide to call that new thing, that’s what your dog forever imprints on their brains.
Meaning: You can call a ball a rag and your dog will always think ball-like objects are known as rags. Wait… what? What’s my dog going to think a rag is called then?
Finding yourself confused? Then pay attention, there’s more.
Your dog is always learning from his or her environment. This type of learning is called: Observational learning. The majority of animals learn most information by using this method of learning. What they see, hear, smell, and generally observe, becomes their classroom.
Now, say you’re in a dog park, and your dog has never seen a ball in his or her life. This is something brand new to him or her. Your dog is going to be watching other dogs play with something owners will call a “ball.” Your dog will begin to observe, when an owner calls out, “Fetch the ball.” and a dog brings back this yellow squishy thing, your dog will begin to wonder, Hmmmm, what just happened there? Let me watch for that to happen again.
It takes repeated events for your dog to learn this is what happens when someone calls out “fetch the ball,” or “get the ball,” or “ball.” Your dog is using observation learning to become conditioned to this pattern of ball object with ball word.
Now, watch what happens when you begin teaching your dog “ball” as “la pelota” (Spanish for ball).
Start by showing your dog the ball without introducing a word. Your dog gets to see the ball.
Second step: Pick up the ball (object) and begin introducing the word “la pelota.” It’s as simple as that. Watch your dog flip his or her head from side to side to see why you’ve just said a word while holding an object. This is the learning process.
Now, you can teach your dog ball (object) and begin pairing ball (word) with la pelota (word). But if you do this, it will take a longer time for your dog to understand the two words mean one object. So, my advice is to first help your dog understand what you’re most comfortable speaking.
If English is your primary language and you instinctively yell out “ball” when you see a ball, then you’re going to teach your dog ball (object) means ball (word). Once your dog begins to master this vocal command with object, you can drop the vocal command and introduce a new vocal command. This will throw your dog off, so don’t be alarmed if your dog seems confused.
Go back to initial training beginning steps with your dog when you need to introduce new ideas.
Pick up the ball, and allow your dog to interact with it without any vocal pairings. Move to step two and pick up the ball (object) and introduce the new word la pelota. Repeat this, until you notice your dog consistently bringing la pelota to you when you ask for it. Remember to reward your dog when you notice him or her successfully finding la pelota. Ignore mistakes for items retrieved as la pelota.
Once your dog successfully begins to bring la pelota, casually begin reintroducing ball (word) and swap between the two commands. Reward for successful retrievals.
This type of thing is really helpful if you live in a diverse neighborhood and want your dog to play with others at the dog park. It’s also helpful if you have friends where Spanish or another language is their primary language. If you ever need a buddy to watch over your buddy, it’ll definitely take some stress off your friends to speak comfortably around your pup and their new friend.