"Wait! Do they speak in different languages?"
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Imagine you adopted a dog from a group that rescues abandoned or misplaced animals from Puerto Rico, or South America. You bring home your new companion and begin training. You can see in your furbaby's eyes there is intelligence, however, the dog (or horse, or cat, etc) is not responding to your training. Your animal friend sits eagerly awaiting your instruction but doesn't respond accordingly. It suddenly dawns on you. Do they know a different language?
The quick answer is: most likely, yes! Does this mean you have to take a crash course in a foreign language? No! The fact that you recognize the human language barrier is very helpful because it takes away the burden and frustration from both you and your animal. As with any learning, frustration is a huge block to receiving information. The best thing you can do is relax. Take a deep breath, hug your companion, and show kindness.
"That's great, Daniela, but I still don't know how to teach my animal certain things!" I know. The second thing to incorporate into your lessons is patience. A lack of patience breeds more frustration and then you are back to step 1. While you sit with your patience, observe your animal. There is no question that your animal will do a few things over the course of a day. They will sit down, they will lay down, they will eat, they will drink, and you will take them out (if your friend is a dog) or use the litter box (if your friend is a cat). At some point, your animal will come to you for snuggles, or paw at you for attention. Perhaps, when your new companion is comfortable in their new surroundings, they will grab a toy, play, and curl up in their new bed. In your observations, you will find opportunities to say a word associated with their chosen activity. With repetition, they will come to associate your word with their activity.
In addition to the above, realize that human beings, in their "wisdom", have kept basic hand motions the same throughout the world. Not all, but most are universal. This is how travelers made themselves understood before the age of cell phones and apps and travel dictionaries. It is quite likely that your foreign-born animal remembers certain hand motions for "STOP", "COME", "THIS WAY", etc. As you say words to accompany their actions, incorporate some hand gestures and sounds (shaking of food bin, rattling keys, a sigh of relief as you plop on the bed (I'm not the only one who does that, am I?). Your animal will quickly associate all these things with their newly learned human words. Tone also matters, probably more than the words themselves! Sound happy when you are about to play. Sound stern when you need a particular behavior to stop.
Next, practice thinking in pictures AND practice thinking of what you are saying and not having a second thought. For example, when you ask your dog to "come for your walk", do not imagine the time your dog ran away from you. Your dog may interpret this as the behavior you want from them. Next thing you know, your dog is pulling at the leash on every walk trying to run away. They don't understand why you are holding them back when they saw you thinking of them running loose. If your thoughts and words are not aligned, it will confuse your animal.
Finally, recognize that all animals are different. Not every animal likes agility training or sees the point or fun in "roll-over". Honor who they are as their own being. Teach essentials for safety and well-being. Train in animal-specific ways. An 8-pound dog doesn't need the same training in walking (heel) as a 150-pound dog. Try "Slow down", or "wait" or something like that if they are pulling and not responding to "heel". If they are not police dogs, you don't need militant-style training. Not only be breed specific, but individual-specific. Remember, everyone is unique. Be open to the fact that they may be training you as well! I know training was a lot easier for me and Little Bear when I listened to him and let go of expectations in certain non-urgent commands. In "Finding Joy: A Dog's Tale", you can read how Little Bear trained me in a few things! Most importantly train with love in your heart. Love will always be understood, no matter the language!