Animals at Some Texas Shelters Respond to Various Languages

Dogs don't "speak" a language in the same way that humans process them

Spanish. Vietnamese. French. German. Hungarian, even.

The Houston Chronicle reports while the list may sound like options for an online language learning program, animal shelters and dog trainers in the greater Houston area have said they've encountered pets that respond to commands in these languages.

The Harris County Animal Shelter sees a "diversity in pets" and the languages the animals respond to reflect the diversity of Harris County, said Kerry McKeel, a spokesperson for the shelter. A 2015 analysis of Census data found that 145 different languages are spoken in Houston.

"Just from observing interactions in our lobby, we can guess the animals understand Spanish, and I'm sure there are other languages that (our) pets understand," McKeel said.

McKeel said she doesn't know the number of bilingual and non-English-speaking pets at the shelter, as it doesn't specifically track that demographic among the roughly 18,000 animals it receives each year. However, she said that judging on interactions she's observed, the most common language after English for pets in the shelter would be Spanish.

Staff members do not currently have time to retrain the animals in English, McKeel said, so the shelter would likely encourage new pet owners to seek out private trainers for their animals to learn commands in English.

The Houston Humane Society also receives pets that only respond to commands in a foreign language, said Angelina Saucedo, the society's marketing manager, but it is "very rare." Last year, the humane society accepted 4,854 animals. Each year, the shelter receives about two or three that don't respond to English, Saucedo said.

Currently, the humane society has a 4-year-old Boxer mix named Missy, who mainly responds to commands in Spanish. She's been working with a Spanish-speaking volunteer, but is also learning English commands through exposure to the language.

"She's usually around English-speaking dog walkers when it comes to volunteers here throughout the week," Saucedo said.

Dolores Alvarez, an 88-year-old Cuban American who fosters pets with the Homeless and Orphaned Pets Endeavor, said she has trained her foster cats -- Jack, Lucas and Adorable -- to respond to both Spanish and English. She uses the word "bueno" to tell her cats to go back into their carrier, and also uses Spanish to tell them when she's very tired. The cats also respond to the command "go and get it" in English.

"They understand everything I say," Alvarez said.

However, she acknowledges the cats may also be responding to the sounds they hear.

"Maybe it's the tone of my voice," she said.

Bianca Burrascano, marketing coordinator with Citizens for Animal Protection, said the organization has seen dogs that respond to Spanish commands and others that respond to Vietnamese. If the dog does not initially know English commands, that doesn't necessarily hold them back, she said.

"I think they probably pick up another language better than a lot of humans do," she said.

In fact, teaching a dog to respond to English-language commands is actually pretty straightforward, said Jerry Wolf, general manager of the pet-boarding and training company Man's Best Friend.

"The bigger challenge is teaching a deaf dog how to obey you," he said.

That's because dogs don't "speak" a language in the same way that humans process them. Rather, dogs simply learn to associate certain sounds with certain actions.

"The native tongue for a dog is not a particular language," Wolf said.

About five to 10 people request for their dogs to be trained in Spanish each year, he said. Occasionally, after importing a dog, clients will ask to train their dog in English, as they often only respond to German or Hungarian. But he's also seen clients who've used unconventional words to train their dogs, substituting numbers or brand names in place of the terms for standard commands.

Sheena Glazier, a trainer at Puptown Houston, said the company is currently training a Goldendoodle named Maverick using aviation terms. The dog was named for the Tom Cruise character in "Top Gun." The business is also working with a Belgian Malinois dog, Mako, that only responds to French, and a Spaniard Poodle, Cyrus, that knows English and German commands.

Like Wolf, Glazier said it isn't hard to train a dog in another language.

"People think of some complicated process," she said. "Dogs are just responding to the vowels and sounds we make."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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