TV’s Newest Trend? Polyglot Dogs

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 1 2012 8:25 AM

Polyglot Dogs, TV’s Newest Trend

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Lucy, the dog that plays Champion, with Nick Offerman on Parks and Recreation(NBC)

Last night’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation featured the heart-warming tale of Sammy, a police dog on the trail of the killer of its K-9 handler. It was a sappy shaggy-dog story about a canine in mourning, but it drew my attention because Sammy only responded to commands made in French. That made CSI the third TV show in recent memory to feature a polyglot dog, that is an animal that appears to understand its owner’s everyday English conversation but only responds to orders given in a foreign language.

In February, on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) took Champion, the three-legged dog owned by April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), to a dog-training course that was conducted entirely in German. This left Andy unable to make Champion obey him, which made him feel like a “terrible dog owner.” (Chris solved the problem by making Andy believe he had summoned Champion by singing to it, when, in fact, Chris had called it with a dog whistle.)

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Then, in the current series of CBS’s Person of Interest, John Reese (Jim Caviezel) came across a Malinois who didn’t obey the Aryan gang member who had taken it from its master. Fortunately, Reese recognized “Butcher” as a highly trained military dog he had worked with in Iraq. Since he happened to know the Dutch commands it responded to, he was able to liberate his friends from the gangbangers and move the Malinois, now known as Bear, to live with his collaborator Harold Finch (Michael Emerson).  

Wednesday’s CSI did offer an excellent explanation for Sammy’s Francophone tendencies: He was born in France, and as the Las Vegas Police Department dog-handler told CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads), “All the dogs come to us fully trained.”

I love that there are so many multilingual canines on television these days; I just wish the networks showed more people with foreign-language skills. But we humans need a little more training: We need to speak foreign languages, not just follow orders issued in them.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.