No! Stop doing that! Don’t. I said no! You know better! Bad dog! Pssst! Hey! Ah-ah! Fido! Fido! FIDO!
Ah, the not so soothing sounds of a human trying to talk to her dog. Any of ’em sound familiar?
They say the definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing time and time again and expect different results. If that is the case, there sure are a lot of insane dog owners out there, especially at the park.
There are many things wrong, from a trainer’s point of view, with the way most people communicate with dogs. I am here to shed some light on several of them. You may notice that the litany of words above are all critical. Mostly used as punishers or as direction. But really, what do the words convey to a dog?
The answer is pretty much nothing. Firs, dogs do not understand human language. They really don’t. They understand context and tone. They can learn to respond to certain cues and they do perhaps learn the meaning of certain words that are highly relevant to their world, sure. However, they are not capable of picking up nuance, innuendo, or sarcasm.
Additionally, even if your dog has learned to associate the word no or any other verbal interrupter with stopping action or disapproval, saying no does nothing to help your dog understand what he or she should do instead to meet your approval. Saying no to a dog, if it gets them to pause what they are doing, merely provides you with an opportunity to then clearly inform them what you would like them to do and then reward them for getting it right.
Now let’s tackle, you know better. Umm, do they?
I would argue that a dog who is misbehaving in your eyes does indeed most likely not “know better.” Dogs spend a heck of a lot their energy trying to avoid conflict with humans, and instead trying to win our favor for the benefit of home, resources, and companionship. It does not behoove them to go against our will. But the thing is, people are generally not so very great about clearly communicating with dogs in a way they understand. (As I am now explaining in this very article.) Most people assume dogs understand way more than they do. Most people don’t have super-savvy training chops and timing. Humans are bad at breaking down an exercise into small enough pieces for a dog to follow the trail to success. Humans are also amazingly inconsistent. So dogs are always trying to get things right by trial and error. That said dogs, do indeed have their own free will; they are sentient beings. Which brings me to my next point: Dissecting the idea of a “bad” dog.
When dogs are doing
things that we don’t like, we very often say they are being bad, when really all they are doing is being dogs. The real crime is doing doggy things that perhaps annoy or disgust their human companions but are completely legit in dogdom. Activities such as rummaging though garbage, for example, dogs are scavengers by nature. Successfully scavenging around human dump sites is actually how dogs first got close
enough to people to begin to acclimate to us and eventually adapt to life by our side. We humans also mostly don’t like a dog jumping on us to lick our faces in greeting, more so if the dog is very large and/or muddy. However, licky facial-mouth greetings are a lovely, friendly, and appeasing way for dogs to greet each other. It’s a greeting that shows deference and respect. Just watch the way nearly any puppy greets an adult dog. Some people even go so far as to interpret this sweet and somewhat submissive action as a sign of dominance or at the very as rude. Talk about a clash of cultures.
And now, my personal favorite … using a dog’s name as a reprimand. Oy! A dog’s name should be conditioned to be nothing but a pleasant way to address them and perhaps get their attention. Just like a person’s name does. Why use your dog’s name as a punisher? Don’t you want them to like the sound of their name? You need your dog’s quick attention to their name mostly when you physically do not have them in contact with you or on leash, so it is best if your pup loves to hear the sounds of her own syllables and associates them with good things and happy times. Not to mention, as with the word no, using a name as a disrupter without giving clear instruction afterward accomplishes nothing — or might even devalue the word entirely if it’s repeated over and over again without any consequence or additional information.
So, I am going to give you a little trainer’s tip next time your dog is doing something you don’t like, to help get things back on track try this golden rule of dog training … show and tell your dog what you would like him to do in place of the undesired behavior. By all means, don’t keep it a secret. When frustrated with your dog, always ask yourself, if this is “wrong,” what is right?
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by Kozorog / iStock