Lessons in Language

I own two Weimaraners, a female named La Contessa Argentata—Tess for short, and a male named Dash.Tess and Dash striped bows

I bought Tess as a weeks-old pup. She’s now 12. Dash came into our family at the age of one as a rescue and is now seven. I enjoy Weimies because of their looks, their athleticism, and above all, their intelligence. They’re sometimes challenging to train as they’re rather stubborn, but they can out think their humans easily, and have no difficulty getting us to understand what they want. Which means that while we have taught them words of our language, individually and strung together to make phrases, they have also taught us to understand what they’re saying or wanting.

Tess

Tess

Often, their method of communication is a specific bark or sound coupled with a look or action. For example, Tess knows there’s a bag of special dog treats on top of the fridge. If she wants one, she looks me in the eye, barks loudly two or three times in succession, and then stares at the bag on top of the fridge. At her back, Dash hops up and down, kangaroo-style, in support of her demand. If I say ‘no, no cookie’, they give up, but if I say ‘all right,’ they both race to the fridge and wait.

Likewise—and here’s another example of intelligence—Tess loves fortune cookies. Nearly every Saturday night we get Chinese take out, but some Saturdays it’ll be something else—Italian, Greek, you get the idea. On nights we have Chinese, Tess patiently waits until the meal is over for the fortune cookies we give them both. But on nights we have Chinese and forget the cookies, she reminds us. She sits in the middle of the den (we nest there for dinner and a movie on Saturday nights) and barks loudly—usually to my  husband—then stares at the cookies in the cellophane bag, where ever they are, and looks back at him. She not only asks for them, but only asks for them on nights we have Chinese. Smart.

I don’t know which dog is smarter, Tess for her language manipulation, or Dash because

Dash

Dash

he lets her do the work. Perhaps she’s just more vocal, whereas he’s more demonstrative. If he wants to go out, he comes close and puts his head in my lap, or pushes me, prompting me to ask, “Do you have to go on the paper?” (This must have been his training mantra as it was Tess’, because they both respond to it.) It’s also a different question from “Do you want to go out?” Which is more likely to mean just sitting on the lawn or hunting birds while I plant flowers. They know the difference. If the answer’s yes, he jumps in place and off we go. If it’s no, he trots off to the kitchen and I know he wants a cookie, or he grabs a toy and I know he wants to play. Whereas if Tess whines at me and I ask “Do you have to go on the paper?” She’ll wag for yes, but if it’s no, she’ll turn her head away and stare at the floor.

   Tess in the field

Tess in the field

So yes, they’ve learned to understand our language to get what they need or want. But what I was surprised to find is that they actually do seem to understand what they say to each other. I thought a bark in one tone aimed at another dog was just ‘hello’, that a growl meant ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘go away’.

But the other night, as my husband and I sat at the dining table after dinner, my assumptions were challenged. Dash lay in his bed chewing on a marrow bone. Tess lay beside me at the opposite side of the table. She sighted him through the table legs and began talking to him. It went something like ‘rou-rou-roo-mmph.’ Then she’d wait, while watching him. Clearly, she wanted his bone.

I told her, “Well, go get it yourself.”

But no, she stayed where she was and continued her whining, ‘roo-roo rou woof mmmm.” She kept it up for several minutes, until Dash got up, took his bone in his mouth, brought it

Dash playing

Dash playing

to her, and dropped it beside her. She happily began munching it, and he came to me for some attention and a whole lot of praise.You could have knocked me over with a feather. Clearly, he understood the message and complied. Do dogs understand the specific sounds they make to each other? Is it language? I know Tess has different barks that she uses at different times, but barking is something she does to or at humans. With Dash she uses a soft growl or these smaller sounds.

I can’t know for sure, but I’m sure my pups are amazing.

4 thoughts on “Lessons in Language

    • Fabulous, Deniz. Just do your homework on breeds and how well they do with all members of a family, and, I don’t have to tell you, writer that you are, read all about ’em.
      Good luck!

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