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It's only fair if we learn each other's language

I’ve been contacted by many pet parents in need of basic training needs for their dogs. Barking, biting, jumping, pulling on leash, chewing on inappropriate objects, unruly behavior and just an overall complete lack of understanding or disregard for appropriate, good-dog behavior. More often than not, the problem is not a simple solution but rather a multi-faceted approach to solving the problems that involves laying the foundation with obedience cues, teaching rules & boundaries, understanding our dogs behavior & body language, paying attention to our interaction with and attitudes towards our dog and even more.

Many people see obedience training as “unnecessary” as a means only to teach a dog “tricks” but what many people don’t understand is that basic obedience training goes far and beyond just “tricks”. Obedience training, in fact, is the very foundation for the direction a dog’s behavior can take.

Imagine travelling to another country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs. You would do what comes naturally to you based on the societal rules and customs you have been born into and have learned growing up. This could mean shaking someone’s hand to say hello or goodbye, patting someone on the back as a gesture of praise, kissing someone on the cheek as an expression of affection. But what if in a different country, these things mean something different. Perhaps they are even offensive or unacceptable. So your natural inclination is to shake someone’s hand to say hello and as you do so, you are greeted with anger and disgust. You’re not sure why or what you did wrong because you just did what you instinctively knew. Confused, you walk away as the person you’ve just offended yells at you in a language you don’t understand and since you don’t speak the language you haven’t learned what you should have done.

This is unfortunately a regular scenario for many dogs. We as humans expect them to automatically understand the rules, customs, language and appropriate behaviors of our world and yet we never teach them what they are – instead, we yell at them in a language they don’t understand and never learn what they should have done differently. By reprimanding but never actually teaching them, they learn to be fearful of us, exhibit those behaviors in our absence or become stressed and anxious and exhibit more negative behaviors.

When we come home and our dog jumps on us, how is he to know that what he should do is sit and greet us if he doesn’t learn the word “sit” or when to do it? When our dog chews on inappropriate items that don’t belong to him, how can he know what he should chew on if we don’t show him and praise him when he does? Our dogs repeat behaviors that get them rewards which include attention, affection, food, toys or other rewarding things. First we have to teach them those behaviors and what they are, then we have to reward them for doing them. When they see the results they yield, more often than not our dogs will offer the behavior they have learned rather than what comes instinctively to them.

Obedience is important because it lays the foundation by giving our dogs a variety of behaviors in their toolbox for them to refer to and use when they want something. The greater your dog’s vocabulary of human words which relate to behaviors, the greater the chance of your dog offering one of those behaviors. The smaller your dog’s behavior vocabulary, the smaller his repertoire of desired behaviors he will have and the more

It’s important for us to understand our dog’s behavior, body language and methods of communication too. How can we know what our dog is trying to tell us if we don’t learn about them and their culture too?

As science has shown, positive reinforcement is the best way to teach a dog any behavior and to create a positive relationship between you and a happy, healthy, confident dog . Aversive, forceful or harsh methods seen often in popular culture and unfortunately in many misguided “trainers” and owners are methods that may work in the immediate moment but are a dangerous recipe for long term behavior problems, creating fearful, insecure and stressed dogs and for masking behavior problems by causing dogs to appear compliant but who have actually shut down from fear and stress.

We can help our dogs to be happier, healthier dogs and have a better relationship with them if we only take the time to understand them and help them understand us. We can do this in so many positive and rewarding ways for both dog and human.

To read more about behavior and dog body language check out Jean Donaldson’s book Culture Clash, Turid Rugaas’ book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals and check out the great video by Zoom Room Agility called The Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language

If you have questions about training, behavior or anything dog – don’t hesitate to ask. If I don’t have the answer I can always help you seek it out.

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