Dogs and new languages/names

My home is my home, but it is also the castle of up to 4 dogs at a time.

As a guide dog trainer for the blind, I am always giving dogs off and bringing new ones into my home – up to 6 times a year. When there are that many dogs in one home, there are bound to be some overlapping names. It is not rare to have two “Sam”s or two “Max”s. In these situations, I have to change the new dog’s name, or it would be too confusing for the dogs and myself.

Here is where many concerned dog lovers cry out, “But the dog will experience an identity crisis!!” Because I find this statement so ridiculous, although it is very well intentioned, I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject today. We as humans identify ourselves with our name, our race, our way of dressing, our home, car, and culture, amongst other things. Dogs, and all other animals, see this very differently. They don’t look over at their best friend the German Shepherd and think, “Oh hey look, it’s Tom!”

They identify themselves through scent, mostly. The name we give them is just a sound that means that they, not the other dogs around them, should come to you. It’s just a sound to them – not their identity. Every time I have changed a name for a dog, which wasn’t very often, they learned it within two days and showed no signs of difficulty understanding the concept or stress. If they are rewarded with joy, play and delicious treats, any dog will tell you, “Heck, you can call my Celery stick as long as I get that treat when I come to you!”

Okay, this next language “discussion” is one that always makes me smirk at my own dog, Mowgli. He grew up with me in California until he was about 4 or 5 years old – learning all of his commands in english. Although I still speak english quite a bit with him, I have moved his most used commands like “come here”, “down”, “sit” and so on, to german. Again, everyone is worried that he is so confused and probably won’t be able to make the switch over to a different language.

Up to this point, he is doing fine. In the beginning he didn’t always understand what I wanted when I said “Platz” for example (lay down in german), but he caught on quickly. Every now and then, and Mowgli is a very intelligent dog, he will test me a bit and look at me as if to say, “I don’t speak german, I have no way of knowing what you want of me.” All it takes then is an amused look from me and a “Mowgli…” and he quickly lays down or sits, because he knows that I know that he knows that he can understand german words after 2 years of living here!

Well, that’s all folks. Just remember, if done with kindness and patience, your animals can learn words in new languages and can also deal with getting a new name if needed (without getting an identity crises).

What funny/interesting stories do you have that involve animals and language? Please share in the comments below!


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