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Communicating With Your Dog

Communicating With Your Dog


Verbal Communication vs. Body Language


One of the largest cultural and behavioral differences between humans and dogs is in the way we communicate.  We have a complex verbal language.  Dogs, on the other hand, have a complex body language.  This difference, and the failure of owners to recognize it, is in my opinion one of the most common causes of ‘bad behavior’ in dogs.  The failure of an effective means of communication is a colossal detriment to a happy human/dog relationship.  The fact is so many owners, many who have had many dogs over many years, just assume, somehow, that their dog has the ability to understand what they are saying.  When their dog doesn’t comply with a request all the responsibility is put on the dog:  “Oh, he is just being stubborn!” 


NOW HEAR THIS:  Dogs cannot be “stubborn.”  Think about what it entails to be “stubborn”:  1) the dog fully understands what is being asked of him (this usually means he has to understand our language); 2) the dog CHOOSES not to comply; 3) the dog must have a REASON in mind for not complying (like a better reward for refusing).  Sorry, but this is far beyond a dog’s ability to reason.  Their brains are simply not large enough for this type of analytical thinking.


Many, if not most, behavioral problems that I encounter with client’s dogs, as well as dogs turned into shelters, began with miscommunication between owner and dog.  Once an effective means of communication is established, many behavior problems go away.  It turns out they weren’t behavioral problems at all, instead the dog’s behavior was the result of stress and frustration from its inability to communicate with its owner (and vice versa).  This occurs a lot with dogs turned in to shelters.  Once these dogs are around people (for instance, shelter staff and volunteers) who understand how to communicate with dogs, the behavior problems go away.  Many people who adopt a shelter dog, and understand how dogs communicate, are amazed at how great their dog is and don’t understand why somebody else would have given up the dog.  It is all about communication.


The reality is that dogs are incapable of “understanding” our verbal language.  All they can do is associate a “sound” we make with an “action” they do.  They learn by association, either classical or operant, and that’s it.  This is why in clicker training we get the behavior first, and then, once we feel the dog fully understands the behavior, we introduce a word for the behavior.  Associating a word with an understood behavior is very easy for a dog.  Associating a word with a behavior the dog does not fully understand, is nearly impossible.  The dog is left with its only option:  to GUESS!  Sometimes the dogs guesses correctly (“Oh, look how smart my dog is!”), but more often the dog guesses incorrectly (“Oh, he’s just STUBBORN!”).  Most owners are setting the bar way to high for our dogs, and then blaming the dog for non-compliance.


Research on Dog Communication


Recent research on the communication abilities of dogs by veterinarian Daniel Mills, a researcher in Behavioral Studies and Animal Welfare at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, has greatly illuminated our understanding of how dogs communicate:


1)  Dogs trained in both verbal and visual cues to do a behavior responded consistently to the visual cue over the verbal cue.


2)  Dogs consider the whole of the environment when associating visual cues with behavior.  For instance, you may think that using a hand motion to the left will signal your dog to the left, but if along with the hand signal to the left you also turned your head to the left, the head turn will become part of the visual cue for the dog to go to the left.


3)  Dogs are not good at differentiating differences in audio cues.  For instance, if you teach your dog to “sit” using a particular accent or tone of voice, the dog will likely not respond, or not respond as well, to another person giving the same verbal cue with a different accent or a different tone of voice.


4)  Dogs do not respond the same to a tape-recorded voice which gives cues identical as that of the same person, live, and in sight of them.  The reason is likely because they can see the lips of the live person and lip movement has become part of the cue.


5)  Dogs respond much differently to differences in emotional content in our voices.  Verbal cues given in happy, sad, angry, or neutral tones produce a large difference in responses.


Enhance Communication to Enhance Relationship


Just as better communication in our human-to-human interactions lead to relationships, the better we can communicate with our dogs, the better of a relationship we will have with them.  Even more, the less stressed and frustrated our dogs will be, and the less likely they will end up engaging in, or being inadvertently taught, bad behavior.


Furthermore, we humans are the higher order species (though sometimes our behavior gives pause to this fact).  Therefore, it should be our responsibility to learn an effective means to communicate our wishes to our dogs instead of the dog’s responsibility to learn our verbal language (a job the dog is sorely lacking in mental capacity to accomplish).


Try this experiment:  Some day when you have a few hours alone with your dog, try interacting with him or her by body language only.  Pretend you are playing a game of charades with your dog.  Go through your regular interactions with your dog, such as walks, games, or just hanging out, but just no words.  I’ll be you’ll find that your dog responded as well, if not better, than he does when you are verbally telling your dog what you him to do.  Its actually a lot of fun and can be a real eye opener.


Points to remember when communicating with your dog: 


1) Be consistent with you your cues, whether they be verbal or visual;


2) Remember it is how we say something that matters;


3) Be careful that you are not giving conflicting or confusing signals;


4) Recognize that if your dog isn’t doing something you’ve asked, the most likely explanation is that your dog simply doesn’t understand you;


Better human to canine communication skills can result in behavioral problems from never developing in the first place.
Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763