Teaching Dogs Language: Applying Research from Dogs Decoded

A while ago I watched Dogs Decoded, a documentary produced by Nova, which explored our relationship with dogs. It drew attention to something I knew about my relationships with my dogs, but was not consciously aware of.

[Above] This is a really quick overview of Dogs Decoded. The full length version is toward the end of this post.

I have deliberately developed the sophistication of understanding for every dog I’ve ever owned. I teach them words. And I use that vocabulary to build concepts.

When traveling across the US back around 1989 or so, I stopped at a State Park in West Virgina. There was a lovely little creek that rolled past boulders smoothed by higher waters. I set off with my German Shepherd, Gaol and my camera. “Gaol, Go out on that rock,” I said pointing to one of the larger boulders in the creek. She hopped out the the designated rock. “Turn this way,” I instructed again. She turned.

A boy, perhaps 10 or 12 years old watched us. His attitude expressed a rolling eyed, “Yeah, right. The dog knows what you’re talking about” expression.

“Look upstream,” I instructed. Gaol looked upstream. “Gaol, you look like a coyote. Stretch out and look like a German Shepherd.” She took a step forward and looked like the poster girl for the GSD breed. The boy’s jaw dropped. I snapped some beautiful images that day.

Have all of the dogs I’ve ever had been able to do this? No.  Could they? I am not sure– Probably not without a lot of training, and it would have been a command for this and a command for that in most cases. Gaol was exceptional. She set a high bar in terms of an aptitude for language acquisition and sophistication of application of that language to various situations.

The most challenging dog I’ve ever worked with was Wil. He came to me– a former beauty pageant show dog– with no socialization, no vocabulary (not even his name), no training on which to build. He was angry. No. He was furious, livid. He was PTSD wracked. Finding a starting place from which to build a partnership was a challenge.

When I watched Dogs Decoded, I noted there were skills most dogs intuitively have that Wil lacked. For example, the film reviewed a study of the way in which dogs and humans study faces in order to assess the emotional status of a human. Both humans and dogs compare the left and right eyes of their subjects. By subconsciously comparing the disposition of those eyes they gather data from which to determine whether the human is happy, sad, angry and so on.

Wil could make no eye contact.

I had been doing a “watch me” exercise with him for some time, but I had not insisted that he take the plunge to look me straight in the eyes. I began to work on this. It took over a year for him to be able to sustain eye contact for up to 5 seconds. As we did the work outlined in my book, The 3 Essential Commands, I noticed that he was beginning to make eye contact voluntarily. And the more comfortable he became making voluntary eye contact, the better he was in distinguishing between friendly people and those who were “off.” For example, there was one young man who came to my ranch whom Wil clearly did not like. I was uneasy with the guy too, so rather than put Wil up, I snapped a leash on him and kept him close to me. In retrospect, I suspect that young man may have been affected by Methamphetamine and I believe that he left because he feared the dog would eat him.

The eye contact lessons have helped Wil make a connection with people that he lacked before. While there is a “what came first: the chicken or the egg” question here, I think that the eye contact cracked Wil’s ability to access language.

A friend and I were reflecting the other night about how much Wil’s vocabulary has grown.

He now knows the words for a list of commands: sit, down, come, heel, stay, wait, here, come by, away to me, get up ahead, that’ll do, easy, steady, get in the car, okay.

He has a growing list of nouns: Horse, cow, sheep, car, truck, bed, couch, mat, kitchen.

One day we were at a veterinary clinic when Wil heard a horse whinny. He perked up and looked in the direction of the sound. “Did you hear the horse, Wil?” I asked. He danced and jumped all around. “I did! You heard it too!” he seemed to say.

And the night that my friend and I were discussing his vocabulary, Wil was nosing around the dining room table. His head popped up by my plate. “I’m not done eating my supper, Wil, but Betsy is.” He turned his attention to her immediately. We laughed. She gave him her plate.

[Above] Here is the full version of Dogs Decoded. See what educational tidbits you can use with your dog!

I encourage you to enhance your relationship with your dog by deliberately teaching him vocabulary and to practice those words in conversational English.

Extension: you can use your dog to help you learn a new language too.

I love you, my good dog. Te quiero, me buen perro.

This is my bone — Esto es me hueso.

This is your bone — Este es tu hueso.

If you’re an old dog like I am, your dog will learn his second language faster than you will!

Good luck– and let me know how it goes!

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