Bilingual Dogs


Walter and Friends in Warmer Days

Growing up I knew a talking sheepdog, one of those big long haired ones, who spoke a half dozen or so English words in a thick accent. No, he didn’t have an English accent although he did vaguely resemble Hugh Grant… The dog, Teddy, used the words appropriately and was quite understandable.

As a result I’ve always known that animals could talk. Our dogs clearly use some of our English words just as we use some of their words and the common language of sounds and signs that has developed between us over the generations they’ve worked with us on our farm.

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Just now the dogs were all in the cottage because we had a whey delivery in the yard. When the truck left I said, “Male Dogs Out”. The alpha dog Kavi got up and went to the door. Before going out he paused and said back over his shoulder, “Out!” The other male dogs then got up and followed him. He spoke the word clearly using it in context and got the appropriate response. Everyone knew what he had said.

Another word they use is “Over” which means to step over to the side of the road or driveways because a vehicle is going to pass. We also use this in herding which means for them to step to the wing so the animals can unbunch and move forward. It is typically accompanied by a directional hand sign.

I hear them speak only a few of our names although they know all of our names and all of their names as we same them. Kavi has a name for Lili that the other dogs will sometimes also say.

Most of the dogs say “Hi” which comes out as a more drawn out sound of “Ahyeee” using it as a greeting. Occasionally they use this to ask for attention meaning, ‘Hi, You, Pay Attention, I have something to say.’ When you pay attention then they explain what is up.

“Whey” is a word a few of them use but it comes out more like “aye-hh” with a cough sound at the end. “W” like with my name is difficult for their tongue and voice box.

They also have an attempt at “UPS” but they can’t do “p” or “s” so it comes out more like “uof” with a particular stop consonant at the end that I can’t do. They say this when they hear the delivery truck, either UPS or FedEx, coming up the mountain. Kavi and Romula are the two who use this word the most. Interesting since Romula is perhaps the most silent, being Omega she rarely talks.

Speaking of Romula, one word she has spoken consistently is “Ow!” She learned this when I was taking porcupine quills out of her face. As I pulled them she had whined lightly at each. I replied, “Yes, Ow, hurts.” After a few repetitions of that she started saying “Ow!” instead of whining. It hurt. She had a word for it. It seemed that having a word for it even helped as we continued the process. Perhaps she wanted to know that I knew it hurt.

Sometimes they’ll clearly say “No!” about something, using our word rather than one of the several words for “no” that they have in their language. What is particularly interesting about that is they’ll say it to each other. They’re using English to communicate with each other in addition to their own language.

Then there is trilingual Katya. We use a huffing grunt “hu-hu” which means “move along mild danger” in the pigs’s language. Katya picked up on my saying this when herding so she says to the pigs “hu-hu” as she helps to herd them. This is quite comical as she is 35 lbs and her herdees are 250 to 700 lbs each.

Katya also cusses sometimes. I have no idea where she picked that up or what exactly she’s saying but the meaning is very clear and situation appropriate. That dog has a mouth on her, like a sailor. “mfain, fraff, nffraffin, mffrff…” she will mumble under her breath when she is plainly pissed about something. Note: Please don’t repeat that as I don’t know what it is she’s actually saying. It could be terribly offensive in dog language.

She’ll also talk to herself about her food, saying “Good, good, good” as she eats. The “G” is soft and almost indistinct but the rest of the word is clear. I think she’s making happy food talk like some people do. “Mmmm, mmm, good!” I don’t think she’s ever heard the Campbell’s soup commercial since we don’t have TV or radio.

Most of the time the dogs stick to using their own language between each other but sometimes they’ll use one of our words when talking to other dogs in the pack and they certainly understand our spoken words as well as the signs we use.

Interestingly, if I speak an English word with their accent they give me a puzzled look. Almost like, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you talk right?” Little kids are like this too. They’ll say “bobbum” for bottom and if you say it back to them their way they don’t like that. They want you to say it properly.

We have a lot of phonemes in our language that the dogs can’t pronounce or are at least very difficult for them. Esses (‘S’) are hard for them. Likewise you and I would get a sore throat trying to pronounce some of their language’s phonemes. The result is they speak with a bit of an accent when they pronounce English words. I’m sure my renditions of words in their language sound a bit off to them too. I have a human accent.

Related Articles:
Makes Me Want to Gag
Remus Renegotiates
Doganomics
Katya the Creative Curser
Katya Gambling
Over!
Porcupines & Stock Car Racing
Communicating Complexities
Bilingual Dogs
Speaker for the Dogs
Dog Names

Outdoors: 24°F/14°F Partially Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/59°F

Daily Spark: English – A language spoken with a quaint and adorable accent by BBC.

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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10 Responses to Bilingual Dogs

  1. David lloyd Sutton says:

    This is a wonderful post! My current fiction project (between too many book reviews, my Grumpy Libertarian column, and tech writing for the PC clinic at Asher College) is a time travel 4th century thingie, in post-roman-empire France, with a gengineered and augmented protagonist, whose chief assistants are gengineered buffalo wolves who speak human. I will certainly reread this post often for actual canine pronunciations. Never had a dog, however smart, who used human words, though at least one clearly tried. Thanks! Have a happy new year!

  2. Edmund Brown says:

    Interesting – next you can teach them to read – http://unspell.blogspot.com/ (on the right sidebar is the explanation)

    I’m curious, do the dogs ever announce your return before it would even be possible for them to hear the tires on the drive? I just read an interesting book by Rupert Sheldrake who claimed many dogs have extra sensory connections with their owners and can tell when the human starts for home even if separated by great distance.

    • Yes, the dogs will announce us long before we gets to the driveway, same for UPS. But that is merely long distance hearing. No ESP needed – Ockham’s Razor applies here. I have very good hearing and often known when the van crests the pass in the mountain about a mile away – Our valley is ringed by mountains. The dogs often tell of her a little before that which is not surprising as their hearing is even better than mine. I envy their big rotatable ears.

      I’ve thought of seeing if Katya, the intellectual in the group, would be interested in learning to read but haven’t explored that with her yet. She does do math. She can count to five, do greater than, less than, equals and things like that. I think the dogs can count much higher than that because they’ll keep track of larger numbers of livestock and know how many are in a group but that is all we’ve done with sign language and object work. Kavi has done this too at times although he is less interested.

  3. Erica Cantolli says:

    I absolutely totally love this post!! Your dog posts are some of my favorites. Your dogs are so amazing. Do you think it is your dogs are somehow diferent? You remind me of a cross between Doctor Doolittle, James Herriot and Joel Saladin. Bravo, Walter! Keep up all the good you do!

    • We do select for intelligence but I think mostly what you’re seeing is they grow up doing work, in a pack with a culture for what they do and have a lot of contact with us. We’re here working with them on the arm all the time. This difference in exposure, in expectations may be critical. Most dogs spend half their day alone waiting for their masters to come home from work. Maybe they need Doggy Einstein videos or something. Maybe smellideos instead of videos since they’re largely scent based… :)

  4. JessicaR says:

    Love it! My dog — I love her — but she is dumb as a door. I cant even teach her to shake hands. Your dogs are something special. They always amaze me!

  5. Nance says:

    I’m not partial to dogs. I don’t have a dog. I don’t want a dog. Not now. I want to be foot loose. However, I so enjoyed this post. It interests me, intrigues me and makes me want to teach a dog to talk and a newborn baby to sign — and maybe adopt a chimp. The human and animal minds and capabilities excite me!

  6. SharonZee says:

    Walter, I have an ubber smart Border Collie, Grace. It hadn’t occurred to me before that she might actually be trying to talk. I mean, I know she is saying something when she grumbles low, but I’m going to have to put an ear to the sound and see if she might be trying to talk English.

    I used to have two dogs, Moose and Abbey. Moose was a Husky Lab cross, with one brown eye and one blue eye. He was a real talker, though just in dog. Abbey was a Malamute. Together they worked out some neat songs and would sign to me all the time. I’ve tried to get Grace and Sprout (he’s a 135 # Black Lab) to sing. Grace will try, but Sprout just thinks we are nuts.

  7. Jessica - VT says:

    Our 11 year old Australian Shepard, Hank, does speak some English words that I have noticed, and has several times very clearly shaken his head “NO”. He very obviously understands a LOT of our English words and also knows when you are talking about him. I believe that their ability to communicate with humans both depends on their intelligence and equally the amount of quality/productive time they spend with their humans.

    I have always found it very interesting reading about the dynamics of your pack, and their interactions with your family and other animals. Thanks for sharing!!

    • “I believe that their ability to communicate with humans both depends on their intelligence and equally the amount of quality/productive time they spend with their humans.”

      Totally agreed! I think that one of the reasons our dogs go so far is they are working with us so much of the time and learning from the older members of the pack. This produces continuity.

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