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.

Bringing Puppy Home

Living with your new puppy

Now that you have brought your puppy home the fun can begin.  It’s the moment that you’ve been planning for and looking forward to  – but then within a short while of being in your home he may have pooped on the carpet, drawn blood from every member of the family with his razor sharp teeth, knocked your cup of tea off of the table and pulled threads in the curtains!  By this time you are beginning to wonder if you have been sold the dog from hell and you are frantically trying to cling to the memory of what life was like before he or she arrived!  It’s usually at this point that you recall a magazine article you once read stating that dogs were excellent at lowering stress levels! What the article failed to mention was the route from puppy to teenager to the adult dog and Man’s best friend.

Things that you need to do before you puppy arrives home…

Check that you have time to spend most of the day with the dog, they will require regular meals, opportunities to go to the loo at least every 2 hours and as they are social animals will require interaction.  Make sure that your garden is totally dog proof. Be certain that you want the commitment of long walks twice a day come rain or shine when the dog gets older.  You will need a chew proof bed for the dog, with something soft inside, plenty of equipment for clearing up mess, food and water bowls, and a good quality puppy food.  Cow’s milk, human breakfast cereals and other dietary supplements are not necessary if you feed a good balanced diet.  The basic rule of thumb here is you get what you pay for.  Try to feed a food that is as natural as possible, there is a big move towards BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) feeding for dogs, but if you want to feed raw read up on it first, there are good quality complete dried foods if that is what you choose, but check out the ingredients before you buy; high levels of ‘animal derivatives’ and grain or potato are not good for a dog.

It is worth seriously considering the purchase of a crate for the dog – this is a wire cage construction that will usually fold flat, it provides a safe den for the dog particularly if an old towel is draped over the top.  It also is a great help with house training and gives you the opportunity to have some time out when you need a break.  NOTE:  The crate should be introduced by feeding and playing with the dog inside it and then encouraging him in there when he is tired, once the dog is asleep in the crate then the door can be shut and you will be able to close the door on the dog every time after that.  Now that the dog has a ‘bedroom’ of its own it is worth noting that it should always be a safe haven for the dog and never a place of punishment i.e. “Get in your bed, you bad dog.”  Any dog should not be crated for prolonged periods of time or safe den becomes prison cell.

One final thing you may need to be sure you have before your puppy arrives is plenty of patience!

Things you should do:
Give plenty of praise and reward when something is done correctly.
Set your dog up to succeed – they will very quickly pick up on it if you are disappointed – the key to success is fun.
Make yourself jolly and interesting.
Take some time out if you begin to lose your temper, try to stay calm and in control
Remain relaxed when out walking, use a soft collar or if your dog pulls try a headcollar such as Gentle Leader.
Use reward based training methods, if used correctly this is the best way to train and develop a strong lifelong bond with your dog.
Let out a high pitched yelp if your puppy bites at you, be an actor, let him know it hurts, then turn away and ignore him for around 20 seconds. It isn’t an instant cure but if you are consistent pup will get the message that this hurts.  Consult a trainer for more persistent problems or if the behaviour is happening with adult teeth.

Take your dog out regularly to relieve himself, pay particular attention when he has just woken up or been fed. Set an alarm clock so that you don’t forget!
Praise the dog and choose a suitable command (ie widdle) when he is going in the right place.
Watch for any signs that your dog may be thinking of going to the loo indoors get there first and calmly take him out.
You can place puppy training pads on the floor near the back door, these have a scent that encourages the dog to use them and they save a lot of clearing up, but you will have to retrain the pup to use the garden. Warning these are impregnated with a scent that encourages the dog to use them, if you already have older dogs they may think it is a good idea to use them as well!
Clean regularly soiled areas with a strong smelling detergent or a special odour neutraliser.
Place obstacles over regularly soiled areas as dogs like to use the same place.
Remember it took you quite a while to be potty trained and it will for your dog!
Things you shouldn’t do:
Hit your dog, for any reason – even with a rolled up newspaper it is unkind and unnecessary and could have a detrimental effect on your relationship.
Use a choke chain, there are many kind and effective methods to help with dogs that pull that do not risk damaging the dogs throat.
Push and shove your dog into position when training use food and gentle encouragement.
Give in to attention seeking behaviour – for some dogs any attention is better than none.
Feed the dog from the meal table.

Reprimand house soiling as this can lead to anxiety problems – try to stay one step ahead of the game.
Rub your dog’s nose in its mess – he won’t know why you are doing it and can cause the dog to have anxiety problems.


Dogs do not speak English it is up to us to familiarise them with the phrases we want them to learn.  Dogs have no notion of when they’ve been bad and certainly don’t plot to annoy you on purpose!! However,  they are extremely sensitive to our moods and body postures so next time he hides away from you just remember he won’t have a clue why you are shouting or what you are shouting about!!


©Lesley Collinson 1997 revised 2013 and 2016

Puppy Training

Puppy training is done 1-2-1 in real life situations, we can…
  • teach the puppy to walk to heel on a proper walk
  • teach him to sit quietly in your lounge while you have a cup of tea, a personal favourite as I get to drink tea too!
  • teach pup to come back to you where there are distractions and exciting smells
  • teach basic doggy manners like not to jump up
  • cover all the basics sit, come, lay down, heel, wait, house training, biting and chewing
  • discuss basic health care
  • discuss any specific areas that you would like to target
  • show you how to live a long and happy life together
  • you decide how many sessions you require

We no longer teach classes in the traditional village hall environment, there are many good classes out there and some not so good!  Classes can be a stressful environment for dog and owner alike and not always the best environment for a positive learning experience.

We prefer to work with you as an individual, tailor sessions to suit what you want to achieve to make your relationship work with your dog; for example there is no point in me teaching you how to keep your pet off the furniture if you, as I do, love nothing better than to cuddle up together of an evening.

Contact Lesley for more information