Your Guide For Interacting With Dogs in French (No, You Don’t Need To Be Bilingual)
If you are located in a francophone city (like Brussels, Paris, or Geneva) and you’re lucky enough to have a pet, you’ll have to face interactions with francophones sooner or later. This is especially true if you have a dog and are taking them out for a walk. French speakers may approach you asking if they can pet your precious fur baby, or other dog owners may strike up an unexpected conversation.
If you’re new to the city or just haven’t had a chance to study the language — you might not speak French just yet. You probably wish you knew at least a few key sentences or have reached an intermediate level before throwing yourself into the French-speaking jungle (in French we say “se donner en pasture aux lionnes”).
Interacting with neighbors and random people on the street can feel like one of the scariest challenges when you’re not confident in French. So if this is you and what I’m saying resonates, I hear you — it’s normal to feel this way. The thing is, native speakers who approach you when you’re out and about have no idea that you’re fearful. Chances are they’ll assume that you are a local just like them and default to speaking full-speed French.
So first things first. If this happens to you, instead of feeling embarrassed, take it as a compliment. Even if in the moment you feel scared and hesitant, their assumption that you’re a native speaker or a local means you come across as a francophone. It’s a great start!
I know, I know — don’t roll your eyes at me just yet. Of course it doesn’t feel like a proud moment when you stare back at them blankly, not able to compute an inkling of what they’ve said. Looking like a francophone is not enough for you to survive the small talk and basic questions you may be asked when you’re at the dog park. That’s the reason why I created this guide to help you practice key sentences so you can feel prepared.
Key Survival Phrases
Regardless of whether you’re the one initiating the small talk or the one being approached by a native speaker, these are some common and useful questions to keep in mind:
- Comment elle s’appelle?
- Comment il s’appelle?
In case you didn’t know, pets have genders in French and we talk about them in ‘he’ or ‘she’ forms — just like in English.
If you’re the one doing the dog-spotting and want to strike up a brief conversation with its owner, the most generic question to ask is “comment il s’appelle?”. This is for the masculine form.
If the dog is a female, the owner may correct you with the feminine “elle”. They may answer “Elle s’appelle Mila”.
You may want to compliment the cute dog while taking your interaction one step further and challenging yourself by saying:
- C’est joli “Mila”, ça vient d’où?
- C’est joli “Mila”, c’est de quelle origine?
Disclaimer: I don’t recommend that you try this challenge if you are a complete and total beginner. First, start with the basic questions and practice a few different times on completely separate occasions to get comfortable.
You may want to confirm with the owner (note the gender here, ‘il’ refers to masculine and ‘elle’ feminine),
- Est-il amical?
- Est-elle amicable?
Now that you know whether he or she is friendly or not, you can ask if it’s okay to pet the dog. You can say (again take note of the gender, ‘le’ or ‘la’ corresponds to masculine and feminine, respectively):
- Est-ce que je peux la caresser?
- Est-ce que je peux le caresser?
You can also ask about their age:
- Elle a quel âge?
- Il a quel âge?
If you know a thing or two about dog breeds, you may even want to ask:
- C’est quel pédigré?
- C’est quelle race?
Now here I need to warn you about something. In French, we use the word “race” only for animals. A lot of English speakers feel uncomfortable even using the word “race” to refer to a dog or animal, but it’s perfectly fine when referring to a pet. But only a pet.
When it comes to humans — never use the word “race” to describe or refer to a person. Never ever. This is a huge insult.
After you’re done getting some cuddles in, you can simply say ‘Merci beaucoup!’ to end the conversation.
Improvising in Real Life Situations
The beauty of real-life situations is their unpredictableness. If there is a phrase you don’t understand during your encounter, don’t stress about it. Do your best and try to let it flow.
Pronunciations and accents may be different and if they are wearing a mask, your comprehension may not be as clear.
There are however a few dog-specific vocabulary words you can memorise (in addition to the above) to make your experience a little bit easier.
- Une laisse = a leash
- Les pattes = the paws
- Aboyer = to bark
- Lécher = to lick
- Mordre = to bite
When speaking to the dog, some common commands you may hear from the owner include:
- Assis! = Sit
- Reste! = Stay
- Couché! = Down
But I recommend you focus on understanding the basic full questions above first. That way you can train your ear to hear them when spoken orally and can recite them confidently next time you see a pooch in the park.
Have you been approached by a French speaker while walking your dog? Or were you the one doing the approaching? How did it go? Join my weekly newsletter below and share with me your experience !