Communicating with your Dog

Does Your Dog Speak English?

Just think about this question before you answer.  The reason I say this is because when it is pointed out to people that dogs don’t, in fact, speak English they quite often look totally shocked.  Dogs speak Canine not human and not Wolf.  A high percentage of problem behaviours and training breakdowns are down to the simple fact that the owner doesn’t realise how to communicate effectively with their pet.

A lot of canine communication is done through non-verbal signals – that is to say body language.  When you are out walking your dog and you see another approaching in the distance there will be a conversation going on between the two long before you give your greetings to the other owner.  This is why your dog is perfectly social with some dogs and either aggressive or submissive to others.

People tell me that they know their dog has been naughty because when they come home he runs and hides or looks guilty.  It will only take a split second for a dog to pick up on a change in your body language from happy and relaxed to stressed and angry, he might know you are becoming cross even before you do and certainly will before you have uttered those all too common words “What have you done!” and if you are often cross with him when you come home he will anticipate this.

Many people, myself included, have full blown conversations with their dogs and their beloved companion seems to hang on every word thus giving the impression that every word is understood.  It isn’t!  However, they enjoy the focus that you are giving them and the gentle tone of voice.

The way a dog learns is to form a series of associations between an action and a consequence.  If the consequence is rewarding the dog is more likely to repeat the behaviour and if it is negative the dog is less likely to repeat the behaviour.

Food for thought:

  • Taking the ‘sit’ and ‘down’ commands as a prime example.  Most people successfully teach a dog to sit by raising a food treat over its eye-line (or using clicker training); as the head goes up the bottom automatically goes down and the treat is released.  Usually when the bottom hits the floor the owner will say ‘sit’.  The association is between the raising of the hand and, eventually, the saying of the cue – the consequence is a treat.  Because this is rewarding the dog will want to repeat the experience and will begin to offer ‘sits’ in an attempt to train the owner to give it a treat.  The same applies for the ‘down’ command; the treat is pulled from the dogs nose down to the floor just in front of his feet this will make the front half of the dog drop down to try and access the food, when it doesn’t get it the dog will usually try lying flat on the floor to get better access to the treat, when this happens the food is released and the command ‘down’ or ‘lay down’ given (slightly different with clicker training).  Just as with the sit the association has been formed between a hand signal, a word and a reward.  Taking this into consideration how confusing is it then for a dog to be told to ‘sit down’.  The dog will look at the owner with pleading eyes as if to say ‘which one do you want me to do?’  It is only when the owner shouts the command that the dog thinks ‘oh dear that doesn’t sound good I’d better offer a learned behaviour and see if it calms them down’.  The dog may offer a paw, this is usually met with a smile, if it is lucky it will get it right first time and offer a sit, but if it lies down that is usually enough to appease its owner.
  • What happens then when an owner asks the dog to sit, the dog offers a down and the owner praises the dog?  How confusing must that be!
  • Using the dog’s name is another thing where we not only expect our pet to speak English, but to be psychic as well.  Here are some of the things that the dog’s name often gets used for – remember this is just one word.  ‘Rover’ can mean:  Come here!  Stop doing that, pay attention to me, do not roll in that fox poo, heel, be quiet and numerous other variations.
  • The final thing I will use for this illustration is barking.  A dog barks to alert its pack.  It is either saying ‘come or look at this, wow this is exciting!’, ‘Stranger danger!’, ‘ let’s get rid of the postman!’ and so on.  Taking the scenario of the Postman as an example:  The Postman enters your gate and is spotted by the dog, the dog barks to warn and rally the pack, you as a fellow pack member come rushing through from the kitchen shouting (barking) ‘Be quiet / shut up’ or similar exclamations; the postman having completed his task then retreats down the garden path and the dog thinks he has done a fantastic job of alerting you and as the pack joined together in barking the intruder retreated. Sound familiar?

Dogs should be trained.  I think this is a statement that no one would disagree with, but next time you try and teach your dog something take a step back and see it from his perspective. If you try and teach a sit or a down by pushing and forcing your dog into position it will not wish to repeat the behaviour, if it is a submissive dog it will comply to avoid the negative sensation, if it is confident or over confident you are highly likely to have teeth placed on your hand or arm as a warning that the dog is uncomfortable, this in turn may lead to you feeling the need for discipline and before you know it you have a total relationship breakdown with ‘man’s best friend’.

Footnote:  The training examples used here are based on lure training, when using clickers (operant conditioning) the process is slightly different.  When in doubt seek the advice of a reputable dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement.

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