A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a woman for whom I have the utmost respect. She told me about a doodle dog whose owner is teaching the dog English; the dog hits a series of buttons which are associated with words. This allows the dog to communicate with her people.
Initially, I thought ‘Wow! Amazing! Maybe I need to do that with my two!’ They’re deaf, and how cool would it be for them to speak with me?
On the other hand….
Why do dogs have to learn yet another thing to make us humans happy? How egotistical is it for humans to expect dogs to learn how to communicate with our species? Maybe, just maybe, we could take the time we’d spend teaching our dogs to hit a series of button so we can understand them and use that time to become more fluent in their language.
We train them so they live indoors, take walks and get fed at our convenience, to not bark (or to bark) when we want. We train them to walk politely on leashes (and blame them if our training fails), come when called (ditto about training fails). Some dogs are dressed up, or expected to ride around in baby carriages.
I write this even as my own two luxuriate on soft beds in our centrally air-conditioned house. Given the choice between hanging out in the late August heat & humidity outside, and snoozing on a comfy bed, they choose the AC. They are performance dogs, and have multiple titles in multiple dogs sports because I asked them to work.
Yes, humans domesticated dogs and the relationship is symbiotic. We expect them to abide by rules and guidelines in order to be family members and live in our homes. Because we are the dominant, ‘smarter’ species, we think it’s OK to make them fluent in our language.
This harkens back to Koko the gorilla, who was taught a form of American Sign Language. Koko was born in captivity, and purportedly knew about 1000 signs and their meanings. There’s some speculation that she was cuing off her handlers in a Clever Hans effect, and/or learned through operant conditioning, rather than actually understanding what she was signing.
I wish I had insight into how much time her handlers spent trying to learn gorilla-speak in order to understand her.
The title of this is ‘Should we teach dogs to speak English’ because that is the language of the country of my birth. It’s title is to reinforce the idea that we expect our dogs to do what WE (self-centeredly?) want. Any other language puts the dog in the same spot.
I often hear people say ‘well, that family moved here from (whatever country), and they need to learn to speak LIKE US.’
How much more do our dog have to be LIKE US? I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to do so. At this point, though, I think I’ll stick with trying to understand my dogs better so I can speak like them. Right now, at least, I’m kinda in the ‘I need to do my best and support and honor my pups for who and what they are’ mode.
They already do a lot for me.
(Photos for attention, and because I think my pups are fab.)