Are you sure your dog understands you?

Si vous ne me comprenez pas, c’est normal. Je vous écris en français. Vous ne connaissez pas cette langue? Cela vous dérange de ne pas me comprendre? Pourtant, nous faisons la même chose avec nos chiens…  

Do you agree with what I just wrote? So? Yes, No??? Why don’t you answer? It’s annoying, answer please!!!!!

Oh. Didn’t you understand? Ah. You don’t speak French. Okay! So here is the translation: “If you don’t understand me, it’s normal. I write you in French. You don’t know this language? Do you mind not understanding me? Yet we do the same thing with our dogs…” Dogs don’t speak the same language as humans, it’s a fact. They can associate a word (or group of words) with a situation or behavior, but if you start explaining the string theory to Rex, there is a good chance that he will look at you, smug, and then go away.  

A few years ago, when I was at a client’s home who thought his dog was “stubborn”, he told me that his dog was not sitting down when he asked. “Rex, sit down!” The dog looks at his owner, all his tongue out, his tail as agitated as the blades of a helicopter, his ears erect and all attentive. He doesn’t sit down. “Rex, I said SIT DOWN now!” The dog walks towards his owner, the rear end of his body dancing, he licks his owner’s hands, and rubs on him. He doesn’t sit down. “Rex, SIT, SIT, SIIIIT!!!!!!!!”.

Despite all his good will to get his dog to sit, when Rex jumped on him to offer him the most beautiful French-Kiss that this world has known, the owner looked at me, the face somewhat fool of drool, desperate, in front of his dog so stubborn and disobedient, then affirming me “you see, I told you, he is stubborn! “.When I asked him how he had proceeded to train this behavior, he answered me the most naturally “Well, I told him SIT”.This gentleman was therefore convinced that dogs were born with the function “decoding and translating human” and that by asking his dog to sit, he would automatically sit down. After a few minutes of training, treats in his pocket, Rex had associated the word “sit” with the behavior that was expected of him. Now he knew what to do. Now he spoke “human”. Now he no longer was stubborn.

It’s the same thing every time we ask our dogs to go “softly”, to get a toy, to stay calm (etc) without first training what these words meant. We consider our dogs so much as members of our families that we tend to forget that they are not humans.Our way of loving our pets has evolved and this is great news for the majority of the interactions we have with them and therefore for their well-being, but it can also sometimes be detrimental to them.

The word “dog” has been associated with denigration, even an insult, and therefore we do not even allow ourselves to consider our canine companions as … dogs! Yet, it is a reality. A dog is a dog; a human is a human. And the good news is that, by admitting it, we can finally remember that dogs do not speak the same language as us, do not communicate in the same way as we do, and do not interact with us in the same way we do with our congeners. Thus, if we want our dogs to meet our demands, we must first tell them what behavior is associated with which cue.  

I was recently walking with a friend who was keeping his dog on a leash (let’s say he was being walked by Princess, whom he considers “bitchy”). “Princess, stop!”, “Princess, stop!”, “Princess, hey ho, you calm down!!!”, “Princess, stop pulling now!!!!”. The cues given to the dog became more and more pronounced, more and more shouted, even preventing me from being able to hear the songs of nature. An hour walk, an hour to hear my friend discuss, shout and negotiate with Princess to stop pulling on the lead, as if, every word that came out of his mouth, in French, were going to have exactly the same meaning in the ears of Princess.

I won’t surprise anyone by saying that, of course, Princess remained at the end of the leash, kept on reading all the messages left on the ground by other dogs before, not even guiding a millimeter her ears towards my friend. I asked my friend if Princess knows what those words meant: “stop, you calm down, that’s enough …». To which he answers me “of course, she knows it!”.

So, curious, I asked him the fateful question “how were these cues trained?”. Answer: Every time she is at the end of the leash, I tell her those words!   Does tirelessly repeating “Ferme la porte de ta chambre !” in french would make you understand that I ask you to close the door of your room? Without any doubt, no.If your dog has not learned that “stop” is associated with the “I stop everything I do now and I’m waiting for new information” behavior, then he can’t guess (remember, the “human language decoder” is not integrated in puppies at birth).

After discussing the possibilities of getting Princess to do the right behavior, and after a few weeks of training, we went out for a walk, all three together, and this time I was able to enjoy the birds singing in nature.   If you have to repeat it a hundred times to your dog and he still does not obey, who’s really stubborn ? Unknown author.   If you want your dog to listen to you, to understand what you expect from him, you must take the time and consideration to train him. 

Positive reinforcement will forever be your ally for a better communication in your dog / human duo.