Polyglot Pooches: Why Many Dogs Are Trained In Other Languages

Whether they’re police K-9s or civilian mutts, many of our four-legged friends are given foreign-language commands during training. Here’s why.
verbal commands

Sitz! Zustan! Good. As if we needed another reason to love dogs, many of them speak another language — and we don’t mean “woof woof.” Our puppy pals have the ability to recognize and respond to verbal commands in other human languages, like German, French or Dutch. There are a few different reasons why people train dogs in foreign languages, and these reasons often correspond to the language choice itself. But no matter the language or the motivation, the bottom line is clear: we are not worthy.

Which Languages Are Used To Train Dogs?

While dogs can be trained in any language, there a few favorites that come up again and again, particularly in the United States. According to Dr. Mark Plonsky, a professor emeritus of experimental biopsychology at the University of Wisconsin, the top languages used by dog trainers include German, Dutch, French and Czech. Plonsky has been training dogs for most of his life and now works as a “K9 behavior consultant.” He compiled a list of verbal commands in the top foreign languages, sourcing them from dog trainers who speak the languages natively.

Plonsky says the selection of which language to use in training a dog is largely intertwined with the reason for using another language at all. It generally comes down to whether the foreign-language commands are being used because someone is connecting the dog to its ancestry, trying to use more effective commands or just having fun.

Hounded By Heritage

Much like how a human may learn a language to get in touch with their ancestry, often dogs are trained in a particular language because of the country they were imported from or the nationality of their breed.  “Dogs get imported and exported,” Plonsky explains. “The dog is trained in the language of where they’re coming from.”

Take police dogs, for example. German Shepherds are the breed of choice for law enforcement, and because they’re of German heritage, they will often be trained using German commands. There’s a pervasive rumor that police officers train their dogs in other languages so criminals or members of the public can’t give them commands, but that myth has been debunked. The dogs are trained to only respond to their handlers, anyway. Otherwise, there would be a lot of German-speaking criminals in the United States.

But law enforcement isn’t the sole community in which dogs are trained in their ancestral language. There’s also the hunting community, which Plonsky says imports dogs from all over the world, and mushing communities (the people who race dog sleds across snow), whose dogs often come from Siberia.

Anyone at all can train their dogs in their language of heritage, even if it’s just for fun. Plonsky gives the example of a friend who bought a French mastiff dog: “When she trains this dog, she used a lot of French. Why? She just thought it’s cool. The dog is French, it might as well learn some French.”

The Sound And The Furry

To a dog, a word’s meaning is irrelevant. Your pup isn’t looking up the definition of “heel” in the dictionary any time soon. What matters is how the word sounds and the context it’s used in during training.

Plonsky says the way certain words sound can make them more or less useful as verbal commands. He gives the example of mushers and their verbal command choices.

“Contrary to popular belief, ‘mush’ is not typically used,” Plonsky says. “It’s believed to be too soft of a sound. One of the common commands is ‘hike’ to get the dogs moving.”

We visited a dog-training class in New York City in which Yiddish words were used as commands. So “sit!” was replaced with “zits!” and “shtai” was substituted for “stay.” The class was taught by certified master dog trainer Miguel Rodriguez. While most of the students were there for fun, Rodriguez pointed out that Yiddish was just an especially good language for dog training.

“I find that teaching dogs in Yiddish is almost easier than English because the words seem a lot sharper,” Rodriguez told us. “When you say ‘sit,’ compared to ‘zits,’ one sounds a lot sharper and more distinguished. And dogs, they don’t necessarily remember vocabulary — they remember tones. So the sharper the tone, the easier it is for them to remember it.”

Doggone Fun!

You don’t really need a specific reason to train your dog in another language. There are other reasons for training polyglot pups, as well. Some people are raising their children to be bilingual and think it’s fun to raise the family dog the same way. Others, like in the case of the Yiddish class, may want to connect with their own heritage, rather than that of the dog. Or maybe, they just think world languages are super cool (we agree). Whatever the reason, keep the doggy language lessons coming!