. . . sort of. I don’t mean the ability of a dog to hear its owner returning from miles away as my own childhood dog used to be able to do with all the members of our household, or the various nuances of sound they can manage which are beyond the human ken.

No – it’s the perennial problem of how much dogs understand English – or any other language for that matter. In the UK many police forces have recently faced a shortage of suitable dogs, with German Shepherds being flown in from other countries, for example the Netherlands. There’s an entertaining article here:Dutch dogs sent to CoventryVarious police officers have had to learn commands in Dutch, Czech, etc. to cope with dogs from various countries who have already been trained.

Do dogs really understand the language of the country they come from? Various studies have been done and no-one really knows how much dogs do understand of human language in general, but obviously there are some super-intelligent working dogs out there, who understand an awful lot of commands. Apart from police dogs, there are guide dogs, hearing dogs, assistance dogs for the disabled, and sheepdogs. Dual guide and hearing dogs are phenomenal. Even ordinary dogs certainly acquire a vocabulary of concrete terms (“walkies” and “din-dins” are obvious) and many people will count the number of words that their dogs know. It’s been suggested that pitch, intonation, and body language all come into it, an understanding of the number of syllables, possibly, and stronger vowel vs consonant perception, so that if you said “talkies” instead of “walkies” the dog would still wag its tail and go and fetch its lead: it’s similar enough, and the way you say it counts for a lot with a dog. I’d be interested to know whether putting the stress in the wrong place, common for non-native speakers of most languages, made it difficult for the dogs’ new owners to make themselves understood by their canine partners. The differing vowel values will have thrown them off the scent, perhaps.

I’m in the same boat as your average household pet. I come when I’m called! I can hear the Bear calling me by name, whether he’s upstairs and I’m downstairs, or vice versa! I can’t actually hear my name as such – YET – but I can hear the rhythm, intonation and number of syllables which all = Bear calling me. “Coffee’s up” is still a call and can’t be distinguished from my own three-syllable name, yet. I’ll have to listen out for “Penguins are gathering on icebergs in your coffee” which is what I often get told if I’ve forgotten it.

The other night, he had to go to a meeting at our local medieval barn restoration group – and said goodbye to me as I sat working in the study, went downstairs, got ready, then called out “Bye-bye” just before he opened the door. I decoded it in exactly the same way as with my name, and called back “Bye-bye”, which left the Bear chuckling all the way to his meeting. He was still chuckling when he came back. It probably sustained him through the meeting . . .

The precision of speech eludes me especially when it’s disembodied – but I’m determined to do better than a Dutch police dog.

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