I’m meeting some amazing dogs on my four-month cross-country RV trip with my dog, Casey. This week I’d like to introduce you to one who came to life when his owners finally started speaking her language.
Can Dogs Be Bilingual?
When Cary and Mike—a couple from Sarasota, Florida—adopted a stray black lab a few years ago, the dog didn’t react to basic commands like “sit” or “stay.” But he was housebroken and well socialized, so the couple suspected that he’d been a member of another family and most likely had a name. “I became kind of obsessed with figuring his name out,” Cary told me. “I would sit around with the dog and toss out names like Rover and Blackie, just to see if we might get lucky.”
Nothing worked until the day that Cary, who is Cuban, began tossing out traditional Hispanic names. “One day I’m sitting in the living room with my husband, and the dog is lounging on the couch,” Cary recalled. “On a whim I said, ‘Pepe,’ and the dog jumped off the couch and came over to where I was sitting. My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘No way!’”
Dog Can Understand Commands in Spanish
They waited a few minutes and tried again—with the same result. Cary then told Pepe to “sientate” (Spanish for sit), a command that the dog had always ignored in English. Pepe sat right down, happy as could be. “I started going through the basic commands in Spanish, and Pepe knew all of them,” Cary told me. “I wish I could have taken a picture of his face. He was ecstatic. His humans were finally speaking his language.”
Cary had already bonded with Pepe before realizing what his name was, which shows that language doesn’t need to be a barrier to a strong human-animal bond. But Cary and Mike credit the Spanish language with deepening their bond with Pepe. Though the dog now knows commands in English, too, Cary swears that he is more likely to respond to Spanish.
How Should I Communicate With My Dog?
Of course Cesar would say that using words to communicate with a dog is nonsense, that what’s important is the intention and energy behind those words. For more on Cesar’s thoughts on using words to communicate with your dog, see his article, 5 Things You’re Doing That Drive Your Dog Crazy.
What do you think? Is your dog bilingual? Is the language we use to communicate with our dogs important?
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine who decided to drop everything, get in an RV with his dog Casey and drive. If you know of any other great dogs he should meet along the way, send him a note in the comments section below or find him on Facebook and Twitter.