Bilingual Dogs: How many languages can dogs “speak” or understand?

Do you have a bilingual dog? What languages can dogs “speak”? Which languages can dogs understand? Is it possible for our pets to be bilingual? It’s something multilingual families don’t really think about when deciding on introducing a pet into the family. In this post Ana Calabrese dives into the subject “Bilingual Dogs”.

Bilingual Dogs

I grew up with dogs, big dogs. However I have never considered myself a dog person, and I really tried hard to get my kids to forget the idea of having a dog. But guess who won?

So, here I am, with a new puppy at home, where we speak Spanish and English on a daily basis.

Once I agreed on having a dog, I started to look for a breed that could be a good fit for our family. I didn’t even consider what language we were going to use with our new family member.

To my surprise, when we went to meet our four-legged friend, his former owner started to speak Spanish with me as soon as she heard me speaking in Spanish with my kids.

We got in the car with our new dog and I said: “I love that he comes from a bilingual family, does this mean that we have a bilingual dog?”

After that, all the big questions related with languages and dog “language” started.

From thinking about bilingual dog names to wondering what language do dogs think in…there was a whole new world for us to discover.

What language to use with our dog?

I feel that after 10 years raising bilingual-bicultural kids, and actively advocating bilingualism during the last 6, I have a fair bit of knowledge on how to raise bilingual kids.

However, I really had no idea if it would have made sense to follow OPOL – the One Person One Language method, or any method, with our dog.

My kids speak English with my husband and to each other, and they speak Spanish only with me.

We arrived home and the first thing I thought was: What language are we going to use to address and train the puppy?

My husband was talking to him in English, I was doing it in Spanish and my kids were mixing both as if the little furry friend could even understand Spanglish!

Can dogs understand different languages?

First, research has shown that dogs can actually process the words and tone of voice separately in different sections of the brain, and that they can “understand” the words regardless the tone is used to say each word.

While your dog might not understand all you say, they can definitely process meaningful words, independently of intonation, as long as you are consistent using always the same words for commands and providing praise.

Having that in mind, we have decided to address him in whatever language each of us want, but we have set basic commands in Spanish, and agreed on an American intonation for praise and a latino intonation for punishment (I am kidding! haha)

But we have learned that a praising tone activates their “reward center” and that it works best if both words and intonation match.

So far I am very happy to hear my husband saying “abajo” (down) every morning when the little pup is trying to jump on the sofa.

My son likes to greet him: “Hello boy” but then consistently says “sentado” (sit), which we have agreed on as well.

On the other hand, my daughter has decided to read to him every night before going to sleep, in both English and Spanish. Hey! that works for me, she is reading in Spanish (our minority language) to the dog and I didn’t even have to ask for it!

So now we can say we have clear idea on how to communicate with him, but now we are trying to learn more about the way he communicates with us.

What language do dogs “speak”?

Regardless the language we use, there is no doubt that dogs process and respond to certain words, commands, tones and body language; maybe the biggest challenge would be for us to learn how our puppy communicates with us.

Learning about types of dog barks and what they mean, or what are they feeling by their tail posture, or eye contact, might give us important clues that will improve our communication with them way further than any language we can use to communicate with them.

Do you have a bilingual dog?

If you are a bilingual or multilingual family, how do you manage languages with your dog? What bilingual dog name did you agree on? Come join the conversation in our Facebook Community of multilingual families and sure to follow Bilingual Kidspot on Facebook.

Author: Ana Calabrese is bilingual parenting advocate raising bilingual-bicultural kids in the U.S. You can find Ana’s original songs on Amazon, iTunes & Spotify. Download lyrics & tips, on her website & follow on Instagram where she is also a founding member of Red de Apoyo Crianza Bilingüe, an information hub in Spanish for parents raising bilingual kids.

Bilingual Dogs What languages can dogs understand and speak