dogs mimic their owners’ behavior—and their language!

AH, THE QUIRKS of human lan­guage, es­pe­cially re­garding the con­crete world in which we live, rather than the made-up world of the rational—and hope­fully ratiocinating—human brain/mind. The “cre­ation of words that im­i­tate nat­ural sounds” is known as ono­matopoeia (Merriam-Webster), a past-time that has ap­par­ently en­gaged and de­lighted hu­mans since we stum­bled upon/invented language.

Those an­i­mals that make sounds with the least amount of vari­ance tend to have ono­matopo­et­i­cally sim­ilar sounds as­signed them in var­ious lan­guages. For ex­ample, nearly every lan­guage has a cow making moo-like noise, while most cats meow, and all cuckoos go cuckoo. *

But what of man’s best friend? That is a very dif­ferent story in­deed. The sounds at­trib­uted to dogs in var­ious lan­guages varies as much as dogs vary in ap­pear­ance and per­son­ality. Here are some of the enor­mous vari­a­tions of the dog’s sound in var­ious languages:

Al­a­banian: ham ham
Catalan, bup bup
• Chi­nese,
wang wang
• Greek,
gav gav
Ice­landic, voff voff
• In­done­sian,
gong gong
• Uk­tranian,
haf haf

And those ras­cally Ital­ians give it the same sound as Eng­lish but spell it bau bau!

This dog has been re­mark­ably well trained, al­though readers should not think that they can du­pli­cate this suc­cess with their own pets.

Dogs develop regional accents

Ac­cording to the Ca­nine Be­hav­iour Centre, dogs can even de­velop re­gional ac­cents! CBC re­searchers con­cluded that “dogs im­i­tate their owners in order to bond with them; the closer the bond, the closer the sim­i­larity in sound.”

As for bonding, anec­dotes, jokes, and car­toons abound con­cerning the sim­i­larity in ap­pear­ance (and often, the dis­po­si­tion and tem­pera­ment) of many dogs to their owners.

In Dis­ney’s 101 Dal­ma­tians (the an­i­mated film from 1961), the ca­nine pro­tag­o­nist Pongo de­cides to hook up his owner, peren­nial bach­elor and human pro­tag­o­nist Roger Rad­cliffe, with a human mate. He does this by checking out the dogs that are at­tached to the avail­able hu­mans. In a cute bit of girl-watching, Pongo checks out var­ious pair­ings and eval­u­ates them. 1

Il­lus­tra­tion by Disney studio artists of var­ious types of dogs and their people from the movie 101 Dal­ma­tians (1961).

Dogs also imitate our actions

And this ex­ample isn’t that far off base: ac­cording to John Lloyd and John Mitchin­son’s won­derful The Book Of Gen­eral Ig­no­rance, dogs mimic their owners’ be­havior: “A ter­rier owned by a young family will tend to be lively and dif­fi­cult to con­trol. The same dog living with an old lady will end up quiet, in­ac­tive and prone to long pe­riods of sleep.” (page 40) 2

In a re­lated topic, dogs also im­i­tate our ac­tions, even if we are not al­ways aware that they are doing so: “The next time your dog digs a hole in the back­yard after watching you garden, don’t punish him. He’s just im­i­tating you. A new study re­veals that our ca­nine pals are ca­pable of copying our be­havior as long as 10 min­utes after it’s hap­pened. The ability is con­sid­ered men­tally de­manding and, until this dis­covery, some­thing that only hu­mans and apes were known to do.”

Be­hav­ioral ethol­o­gist Ádám Mik­lósi and Italian dog trainer Claudia Fugazza “hope that trainers, es­pe­cially those teaching guide and other working dogs, take ad­van­tage of their will­ing­ness to learn by watching our ac­tions. He and Fugazza ad­vise dog-owners and trainers to think of useful ac­tions for dogs to copy, such as fetching the mail from the mailbox, car­rying a tool to the garden, or better yet on these hot summer days, grab­bing a beer for Dad from the fridge.” 3

Babe Ruth hefting sev­eral bats be­fore en­tering the on-deck circle.

Old man and a dog walk into a bar

I can’t re­sist a joke: a griz­zled old man wan­ders into a sa­loon with his dog, an equally old, salt-and-pepper mutt. As the bar­tender watches, the man picks out a seat at the bar and the dog sits next to him by his feet. After the bar­tender asks what he will have, the old man con­fesses he’s broke and asks, “If my dog Tomboy here an­swers a ques­tion, will you give me a drink?”

The bar­tender hu­mors the man with his gen­erosity: “Sure, pops. For every ques­tion the dog an­swers, you can pick any damn drink you want!”

Eyeing the bottle of Laphroaig on the back­bar’s top shelf, the old man turns to his dog and asks, “Tomboy, what’s on top of a house?”

And the dog barks, “Roof! Roof!”

As the old man turns back, the bar­tender says, “Slow down, old-timer. You have to do better than that crap!”

Shaking his head, the old­ster asks his dog, “So, Tom old boy, what does sand­paper feel like?”

And the dog barks, “Ruff! Ruff!”

This time the bar­tender is less pa­tient: “All right! Enough with the crap. One last ques­tion and it better be a real answer!”

So the old ma in­quires, “Who was the greatest hitter in the his­tory of baseball?”

And the dog barks, “Ruth! Ruth!”

At which point the bar­tender ex­claims, “Enough! Hit the road!”

And as the thirsty old man and the puz­zled old dog walk out the door into the hot sun­light, ol’ Tomboy looks up at his master and says, “Should I have said Ted Williams?”



1   This image was as­sem­bled from in­di­vidual frames from 101 Dal­ma­tians by someone else; I just found it on the Internet.

2   This essay was lib­er­ally adapted from the pocket edi­tion of The Book Of Gen­eral Ig­no­rance by Faber and Faber (2008). Get used to this book: I in­tend to lift sev­eral more en­tries for fu­ture posts on this site. Also, I am tempted to make some crack about what this tells me about my won­drous sister Mary Alice and her wild and crazy Labs Cinder and Ember, but I won’t …

3   These last two para­graphs are taken from “Dogs Im­i­tate Hu­mans? Ca­nine Study Shows Man’s Best Friend Is Ca­pable Of Copycat Be­havior“by Vir­gina Morell for Huff­in­gton Post (July 27, 2013).


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