A Failure to Communicate

by Cathryn Lundberg

I would like to relate a few anecdotes pertaining to my experience with owners interpreting their dog's behavior. Many times they think they know what is going on, but really have got the wrong take on it. Overall I find owners that are having problems because they are not correctly interpreting the situation, and therefore the problem persists. If the interpretation is correct, then the problem usually goes away pretty quickly. Now this IS a broad generalization, like aggression has to be worked on for years, or at least managed, but you get the idea.

The easiest and most common mistake I hear is, "MY dog KNOWS what sit means!" This is from owners of 16 week-old puppies! My goal for them, as an instructor, is to get the dogs to understand and LISTEN for the actual words. It can be done.

For instance, I use the word OK as a release for my Pyr, Orsa. I was practicing downs one day when she was young, walking around, talking, reciting the alphabet and saying silly words, and stepping over her. I made the mistake of talking about vegetables! Bananas, apples, oranges, OKRA, and the dog got up wagging her tail! I was taken by complete surprise, and went to correct her, but my husband quickly intervened. He pointed out that OKRA sounds a lot like OKAY and that I should not correct her. We then went through a training period of OKRA (normal voice), eh, eh (don't get up), and OKAY (happy voice), clap hands. She soon learned to differentiate between the two words, although these days if she is not paying attention, she may reflexively jerk and then shoot a look at me, which requires a double command on my part. But I don't CARE, she is THINKING!

Anyway, for puppy people who tell me their pup KNOWS sit, I give them the following test. Ask your dog to sit. "Fluffy, SIT." Dog sits. Ask your dog to sit. Yes, again. Yes, I know the dog is already sitting. "Fluffy, SIT." Dog downs. Dog does NOT know meaning of word, dog is anticipating that you want it to do SOMETHING and readily complies--for the treat or whatever. This dog isn't listening. And probably the owner always practices the sit and the down together and in that order. The dog anticipates and expects the owner's wishes without listening to the WORDS. But this is a case where the owners THINK they know the lay of the land, and they have incorrectly interpreted it.

For those of you who are curious, if the pup remains sitting after the second command, I tell the owner to give BIG praise. Then I tell them to sit in a chair and repeat the performance. Then I tell them to lie on the floor and repeat the commands. To step away ten feet. Dogs usually won't sit at all for people lying down (this reduces your alpha status, as height confers status--that's one of the reasons dogs shouldn't be allowed on couches or beds.). Dogs probably won't sit in place if you are ten feet away. They will probably come to you and sit. Dogs are SO situational. It is the trainer's job to make the dog understand that SIT means something very specific in all situations. You have to train each situation separately and until you do, the dog does NOT understand SIT. This goes for all commands!

Let's go back to the trash problem. Dog knocks over trash, has a ball playing and eating. Goes to sleep, plays with cat. Owner comes home, dog is happy, owner sees trash and gets upset and starts yelling. Dog crouches, puts ears down, goes to crate, and in general acts submissive, appeasing and guilty. I had one couple tell me that the dog KNEW what he had done, and that he was bad--ON PURPOSE. I told them to go home and knock the trash over, with and without the dog present to see them do it. And then act the same way that they do when the dog does it, bad dog, etc., etc. In both cases the dog acted guilty. This finally convinced them that the dog was responding to them and their cues and not responding to the act. I suspect that you could do the same thing with messing in the house. Bring a poop pile inside from outside, and make a fuss. I betcha the dog will act like "I did it" and know he did wrong--when he didn't do anything at all!

One last story. I have an acquaintance who now has her own cable show about addressing dog behavior problems (Dr. Trish McConnell). She has a Pyr to guard her sheep. She has the Pyr and sheep so she can practice herding with her seven border collies! Trish related the story to me. She had a young BC who was doing very well with his exercises. So Trish decided to move on to the "circle around left" and "circle around right" commands, a little more advanced work. The dog seemed to get it just fine. Circle left (arm signal). Dog circled left. Circle right. Dog goes right. Left, right, left, etc. Practiced for a few weeks. Dog knew command. Then one day, Trish said left, and the dog went right. Trish said right and the dog went left. Left, right; Right, left! She and the dog stalemated in absolute frustration, and Trish went home, very despondent, with dashed hopes for her new herding champion. Then, thinking about it she realized that she had always started out to the right, and had alternated commands--left, right, left--without varying them. She then understood that the dog had learned CHANGE DIRECTION from her arm signals, all the while she thought she had taught him directional commands. She went back to the beginning and retrained, and the dog went on to do very well.

So even the pros have to think and watch very carefully when they find something that doesn't make sense. They look very carefully for clues as to what might be going on, and the first thing to throw out the window is the idea that you ALREADY know! I believe as many have before me that if there is undesirable behavior going on, look to yourself as the cause. WE the owners have either inadvertently trained this behavior and that until we understand what (or why) the animal is doing it, it will continue. With specific exceptions, I guess I do subscribe to Barbara Woodhouse's old adage--No Bad Dogs, Only Bad Owners! Too bad that, in many cases, we get the dogs in Rescue too late to make a difference.

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