With this post, I want to talk about languages. I speak Spanish very, very well. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. If I talk to someone on the phone, oftentimes they think that I’m a native speaker. I think that’s a pretty big deal, considering that most people’s second language
Am I tooting my own horn? Absolutely!
However, it took me many years to get good at speaking Spanish. I still practice it whenever I can with my clients who are from Mexico or random people that I meet. I always joke that I’m good at two things: Spanish and dogs. So far I’ve made a living with dogs. Maybe it’ll be Spanish one day.
When I first started learning Spanish, if someone had just come up to me and started talking in Spanish, getting upset when I didn’t understand, I would have been completely confused. After all, what is language?
I’m sure there’s an excellent dictionary definition out there that I’m going to butcher right now, but here goes: essentially, language is external communication. It’s something that people agree on and jointly decide to use. At some point, people decided that the word “me” means “this guy right here.” Some other people agreed that “comer” means “to eat.” Some other people agree that “coucher” means “to lie down.” Language is a set of agreed-upon meaning, and when it works people can communicate.
Everything you do in training your dog is an attempt to use a language. When people get a puppy, they tend to bring out treats and trying to talk to the dog in “treat language.” But for the dog, this is brand new language! Some dude with a hot dog in his hand is putting something in front of its nose! This is an external action that has no real meaning to the dog at first. There must be a meaning attached to a language for it to be effective.
As another example, I often talk to clients who are very confused because their new puppy won’t walk on leash. They say, “He’s a dog, shouldn’t he walk on a leash?” Not necessarily. Leash pressure and leash communication is a language. It’s not something that a dog automatically understands. The same is true of e-collars and voices. Every tool is a different language we’re attempting to teach a dog.
We’re not just using English, or Spanish, or Dutch when we talk to our dogs. We’re also using body language, tone, and other subtle, hard-to-qualify means of communication. We use a variety of different languages, but all of them are foreign to our dog.
People recognize certain things as universal, perhaps because they’re ingrained or perhaps because we learned them growing up. We get to a point where we can communicate with body language, but some people have a very difficult time with that. We communicate with spoken language, but if you don’t know the language that someone speak you’ll obviously struggle to talk to them. But when we use food or e-collars or voices with our dog, we often find that those “languages” are too foreign to our dogs. Many owners don’t take the time to properly give meaning to the things they’re trying to do. Those people end up with very confused dogs.
If you’ve ever tried to learn or teach another language, you know it’s not easy. So when we’re talking about teaching languages across species, we should expect it to be difficult. Bear that in mind when you’re frustrated with your dog or wondering why he doesn’t understand what you’re saying. More often than not, you’re not communicating as well as you could be.