I don’t often think about it, but today I noticed how bilingual my dog is. Xiao Chien doesn’t speak any mandarin yet, but she certainly obeys French. One doesn’t normally think about dogs and other animals being monolingual or bilingual, except here in Quebec where we are confronted with that issue.
First we have to decide on an anglophone or a francophone dog trainer or puppy class… I decided on English, since it just comes naturally to me to say “Heel! Sit! Stay! Give!”. This meant I had to travel all the way across town to a more anglophone area for the classes.
With my last Saint, this resulted in some drama: they have a rule that you can take your dog into the subway and busses if the dog is held in your arms (I assume this is 1. So the dog cannot run away and 2. So the dog cannot do its business on the floor, walls or someone’s leg). Well, my dog was 4 months old when classes started, but 6 months old and a good 50 lbs when the classes ended. We took the bus each class to the other end of town. But the last class, when we followed another passenger on the bus, me holding her (awkwardly) in my arms to climb the stairs, the bus driver ordered us off. “Your dog is too big!” Well, I had informed myself of the transit corporation rules before even signing up for classes so I was pretty sure that I was following them.
The bus driver then proceeded to tell us he wasn’t going to drive until we got off… frankly I didn’t have the $ for a taxi even if one would take us, and it was about 2 hours walk home. AND I knew I was within my rights. So he informed all the passengers it was my fault the bus wasn’t moving, and then he called his central command, and put it on speakerphone. How red-faced he was, and how vindicated I felt when his commander read the rule of the dog must be in the rider’s arms and not let free on the ground… it didn’t say “Saint Bernards excluded”. ROFL! So we did get home, with a busload of supportive passengers petting my puppy as she sat on my lap, and one very very angry bus driver.
Anyways, both my dogs were educated in English only. But we do a lot of dog-sitting or exchanging walking services with other neighbors. And most of them are francophone. So yesterday I was taking out a neighbor’s “French” dog and said “Assis!” to her, and my dog also sat instantly. Turns out she also understands “couché, biscuit, viens”…
But she will still only give over toys and branches with the order “GIVE!” which is why you will often see frustrated dog owners chasing my dog shouting “donnes! donnes!” to no avail. I utter “GIVE!” once and she drops it immediately! I’ll have to work on her French!
The idea for this post came while reading Rosemary Well’s story “McDuff Goes to School” illustrated by Susan Jeffers. McDuff is a little white westie whose owners sign him up for obedience class but don’t have time to practice with him. He fails the final exam to their great chagrin, but then the new neighbor on the block steps in. She is from France, and has been training her dog, Marie, daily on the other side of McDuff’s fence… and McDuff has picked it all up… he ends up completing his obedience exam with flying colors in a language completely foreign to his owners! A fun book for children learning French, who speak French, or just to think about language differences. The French neighbor speaks the commands in French throughout the book (without translation, but the meanings are as obvious to the child reader as to the dog), and there is a French glossary of words used in the back of the book.
Another thing I like about this book is that it highlights how language vocabulary and fluency are context-specific. If you are anglophone but learn all the names for your computer from a Spanish guy, you won’t know the English terms, and will be hispanic only in a computer setting! More on that another post.