Dog trainer Eric Brad reminds us that good communication with our dogs relies on positive reinforcement, consistency and fairness. Being observant and clear about what we are saying will lead to success, he says.
In a kitchen somewhere, a woman tells her young dog to “Sit!” The dog dutifully puts it’s butt on the floor and the woman says “Stay!” There is someone at the door and the woman answers it. “Oh, yes. Thank you for the package. You could leave it at the door next time. That would be OK.” The woman notices that her dog is standing next to her and walks her back into the kitchen, irritated. “Sit and STAY!”
She returns to the door to accept the package and, responding to the delivery man’s wish to “have a good day”, she says “OK, you too!” Again her dog is at her feet as she examines her package. Frustrated, she marches the dog back into the kitchen and tells him sternly, “SIT and STAY!” The woman walks a few feet away, waits a few moments to be sure her “command” is being obeyed and then releases the dog with a cheerful “OK! Good dog.”
This dog responded to “OK” each time he heard it. But only once was it meant for him. He was scolded for responding to the other two.
Once More, With Feeling
Stories like the fictional one above are not uncommon. Variations of it fill the lives of millions of dogs every single day. Dogs are so much a part of our lives and are so good at adapting to our human quirks that frequently incidents like the one described above pass with little notice in our daily lives. We may perhaps make a mental note that we need to do more training or that the dog is ‘in a mood’ today. But there may be more to the scenario than we realize.
Science is rapidly making advances in the study of the brain and emotions. Books such as Emotion Explained by Edmund Rolls and those written by Antonio Damasio are making the complex study of the brain and neurology accessible to the average reader. Research points clearly to the fact that our dogs share some of our emotional capabilities in response to their world and the people in it. Frustration is one of them.
Do What I Mean, Not What I Say
Our dogs are not verbal creatures by nature. Clearly dogs respond to verbal cues that we teach them but what is lacking is the more complex understanding of syntax and abstract constructs. Behaviourist Patricia McConnell discusses this in her book For the Love of a Dog and cites research done with a border collie named Rico. Although Rico demonstrated a remarkable ability to remember over 200 names for objects and even some ability to discover the meaning of unknown words, nothing approaching an understanding of “conversation” has been proven in dogs.
Many of us have had a chuckle at Gary Larson’s Farside Cartoon of a man talking to his dog Ginger. The cartoon is a lighthearted reminder of the limitation of our dogs in understanding the complexity of human communication. Ginger seems to pick up only the works relevant to her. In the opening scenario of this article, it’s likely that the dog in the kitchen heard nothing but the relevant word – “OK.”
Like Ginger in the cartoon, our dogs listen to us speak searching for any cue word that might be relevant to them. But we might not be talking to them. And so our dogs must piece together various other clues (i.e., visual, verbal, smells, environmental, etc.) to determine if the signal was meant for them or not. Remarkably, our dogs do a pretty good job of that most of the time.
In her book, Inside of a Dog, author, scientist, and dog owner Alexandra Horowitz devotes nearly an entire chapter to the peculiar phenomenon of dogs seeming to read their owner’s minds. Our dogs do have an uncanny ability to know what we’re about to do almost before we do it. But it isn’t mind reading at all.
Horowitz points out in great detail that our dogs spend a great deal of their lives observing their surroundings, us included. They retain information about our movements, sounds, and smells. Over time, these become reliable cues for what we will do next. It is an incredible ability that makes them uniquely suited to be our companions.
Unfortunately, this marvelous ability also seems, on occasion, to be their undoing. We humans are so used to our dogs ‘understanding’ us that we frequently leave out key bits of information when communicating with them. In a sense, we assume that they ‘know what we mean,’ that they have a sense of context because they seem so attuned to us in our everyday life.
For all of their skill in “reading” us, our dogs are still guessing (albeit with remarkable accuracy) at our intentions much of the time. Experience, training, and the communication style of the humans involved play a large role in how much of the time the dog is right and how often they are wrong. Just as dogs that guess right most of the time can seem well adjusted and happy, dogs that get it wrong (some are even punished for it) much of the time can be frustrated, on edge, or even shut down and disinterested.
Consider for a moment how our dogs respond to these “wrong guesses” at an emotional level. A dog responding to what it perceived as a cue must be more than a little puzzled if it is reprimanded for doing what it thought was asked. Other times it is rewarded for doing what is asked.
Very often we expect our dogs to accompany us if we go somewhere without any cue; just follow me. We walk and they walk with us. Then we ask them to “Stay” and walk away. Is it any wonder that they sometimes come with us? Depending on how consistent we are in our communication with them, our dogs have to guess more or less often what we want them to do.
Our dogs are good at filling in the blanks for us. The negative emotional impact of these miscommunications can be more than just confusing, they can impair our ability to communicate successfully with our dog. If they happen often enough, our dogs can come to mistrust us or even quit trying to respond at all to avoid a punishment in case they might be wrong.
Managing our communication with our dogs to minimize their confusion and frustration is important. We’ve bred them to be our companions so it shouldn’t be a surprise that our dogs are frequently happy to do what we ask of them, if we are being clear and they understand us. Their skills at understanding us no matter how vague our request can make us lazy communicators. And that can be hard on them.
It isn’t difficult to be a good communicator with your dog. Just be fair and observant and clear about what you are saying. Forgive them if a missed cue was due to a lack of information. No one likes being frustrated, not even our dogs. Don’t just assume that they knew what you meant or punish them for your inability to communicate clearly. Make the extra effort to be clear and forgive them if they misunderstand. It will make you both happier, I promise.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Unsure – dickuhne 2006 from Flickr
Cartoon – Gary Larson from Farside
Expectant – Olgierd Pstrykotworca 2010 from Flickr