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Man’s best friend provides judgement-free language learning opportunities

Speaking with and teaching a dog commands in Potawatomi — such as gzhkeshnen (lay down), gashnen (stop) and bozho’a (shake) — offers fun ways to learn the language with simple phrases, especially for beginners.

Higbee descendant Ragan Marsee began teaching her dog, Blue, Potawatomi commands at 9 or 10 months old. Marsee enjoys learning different languages and now works for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Language Department as a language aid.

“I started teaching her the commands before I started working here. So, when I first got her, I would talk to her. I’d call her like ‘penojes,’ ‘my baby,’ and ‘ndanes,’ ‘my daughter.’ And I … would be like, ‘Dokém,’ like, ‘Calm down,’ because she was just a super high energy dog,” Marsee said.

She never taught Potawatomi to the other dogs she owned; however, she finds Blue very receptive to learning a new language along with her. Practicing with her dog allowed Marsee to use simple vocabulary while feeling no judgment for her imperfections.

“When I talk with people that do know the language, my confidence just goes (down), and I completely forget everything that I know,” she said. “And so they’re a good starting place. And they’re gentle teachers, for sure. They teach me a lot more than I teach them — that I will say, 110 percent.”

Tips and tricks

Marsee chose to teach her dog Potawatomi to form a special bond.

“I just knew that no one else was going to know what I was saying. And no one else was going to know what I was commanding her and that she would only listen to me, and she would look to me for the commands. And she’s still a kid. She’s only 14 in human years. So she’s still really rambunctious, and I’m still teaching her every day,” Marsee said.

She stressed positive reinforcement, using treats and attention, as opposed to yelling or physical punishment.

“A lot of the times, if you sharpen your tone and you let them know they’re in trouble, and you have them sit and lay down and stay, then they’re like, ‘Oh, no. What I’d do?’ Because dogs don’t want to do bad. They want to do good,” Marsee said.

Adding structure to periods of learning signals to dogs when it is time to focus and pay attention.

“What I’ve noticed is that a dog that is full of energy is not going to be receptive to learning that well. So you kind of have to work with them for a while,” she said.

Marsee keeps treats in her pocket while she lets Blue run around on her family’s acreage. After Blue tires herself out, Marsee works on simple commands with her, offering a treat for good behavior.

“She’s off running. I’ll be like, ‘Byan shodé,’ you know, ‘Come here,’ and she’ll hear me and she’ll come to me, and I’ll be like, ‘Jibtében’ (Sit down), and she knows that command,” Marsee said.

Offering a visual queue to go with the vocabulary — such as a hand up for “stop” — and a specific tone with each command aids the learning process. For the best chance at success, Marsee recommended patience and spending plenty of time with furry friends.

“Honestly, I think there’s been a bit of a stigma with dogs thinking like ‘old dogs can’t learn new tricks,’ you know? But I would say it couldn’t be farther from the truth. As long as you have a good connection with your dog, if you are treating your dog properly, your dog is going to be receptive to learning. And sometimes it takes time. It definitely is not a one-day process,” she said.

However, most dogs quickly pick it up. Reminders about the importance of using the language in everyday life can quell any apprehensions about teaching them Potawatomi.

“Just go for it,” Marsee said. “Your dogs understand tone. Usually, they’re going to understand what you’re asking them to do. They’re pretty smart.”

Find CPN Language Department resources at potawatomidictionary.com, cpn.news/language and on YouTube at cpn.news/youtube.