dogs mimic their owners’ behavior—and their language!

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

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 a 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 like Eng­lish but spell it bau bau!


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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


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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 guides 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


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Babe Ruth as the “Sultan of Swat.”

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 back bar’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?”


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FEA­TURED IMAGE: An­other image from Walt Dis­ney’s an­i­mated movie 101 Dal­ma­tions with Pongo fol­lowing Roger across a bridge in the park where he no­tices the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween dog and owner.





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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