By Valerie Barry
I often find myself saying to people – “Keep in mind that your dog does NOT understand English”. And then, of course, they will usually reply with something like “Yeah, I get that” (like, DUH?!). But if you really stop and think about it, do you ACT like your dog doesn’t understand English? Think about some of the things that you say to your dog or that you ask your dog to do: “Fido, if you do that one more time you are going to drive me insane!”; “If you would just sit still while I put your harness on, we would get to our walk a whole heck of a lot sooner!”; “I said STAY – what part of that is not clear?!”
If you go to a country where few people speak English and you don’t speak the native language are you stupid if you can’t understand what someone is saying to you? Are they stupid for not being able to speak your language?
Picture yourself in that foreign country standing in front of someone on the sidewalk. He keeps saying “fh)izz&ein“, and you just stand there. He says it again and maybe you try smiling. So he says it again, maybe a bit louder and maybe he seems to start getting annoyed – so you reach out to shake his hand in a gesture of good will. He swats your hand away and shouts “fh)izz&ein”, so you think maybe he needs a hug. That’s the last straw for him! He shoves you aside and keeps going, muttering under his breath as he passes. Are you stupid? He thinks you are. Can you honestly view this situation from both sides and fairly say that you’re being stubborn, or ignoring him or trying to dominate him?
He was asking you something very simple – to him. He could say it a thousand times in a thousand different ways and unless you accidentally make the right choice, you’ll never understand what he wants. If you’re a brave sort and start trying things like smiling and hugging you may eventually stumble on the right answer. But if you’re intimidated and frozen in fear, you’ll never get it unless he helps you. Many average pet owners tend to spend very little time actually working on formally training their dog during his or her lifetime.
At the beginning they may take a puppy class and maybe even a basic obedience class – but most actual “training” tends to happen on the fly. Training tends to take place as the need arises and in the moment – for example: – When people come to visit, we may spend a few moments attempting to keep our dog from jumping on them – “Sit, Sit, SIT!!”, endlessly pushing their butt to the ground or ultimately banishing them from the experience altogether. After several months or even years of random visitors, this may become more or less successful depending on many factors – whether you just give up quickly or not, whether there is any reward in it for the dog, how intimidating you can be and how easily intimidated your dog is, etc. Eventually, it becomes good enough or you just become desensitized to it and so do a lot of your visitors.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with approaching training in this way. Everyone is different and everyone has different lives and different expectations of their dogs. It IS important, though, that your results are in line with your expectations. Otherwise, it’s frustrating and not much fun to live with a dog who really doesn’t understand what you want and isn’t capable of doing what you ask. It’s really not much fun for the dog either – living with you but not really confident that he knows exactly what you want. Often, people begin to characterize some less successfully trained dogs as “stupid”, “stubborn”, “willful”, “ignoring us”, “blowing us off”, or the ever-popular “dominant”. “They should just know what they’re supposed to do by now!” – I’ve heard that from people, too.
I think some of the problem is that traditional dog training cues are words for obvious acts like “Sit”, “Stay”, “Down”, “Leave It”, “Off”, etc. We use them and repeat them so often and the action seems so obvious to us that we seem to think our dogs should just begin to understand. Now think about the word “No” and in just how many circumstances we expect our dogs to apply that knowledge! It seems that to some extent dogs are their own worst enemy. Because they have lived with and learned from humans for at least 15,000 years they, more than any other species, are able to interpret some of what we mean with the many gestures and body language cues that we use when we interact with them. They often DO seem to know what we want and almost seem to know what we’re thinking at times. And, they hit it right often enough that it actually reinforces our belief that they do “know” what we want and understand what we’re saying.
But they still can’t understand and aren’t able to speak English. If they knew what we wanted, they would just do it. There is every reason to do what we ask regardless of your choice of training. They either get something they want or they avoid punishment and pain. There is simply NO reason NOT to do what we’re asking. Our dogs don’t become “stupid” or “stubborn” the minute they walk out the door and seem to forget their “Sit” cue. They simply need understanding and help in learning that the “Sit” cue still means the same as it did when they were waiting for dinner – the circumstances are just different – and they don’t understand the word itself.
Next time you’re hanging out with your dog and asking for something, try observing his response and think about the result from his perspective.
For some interesting information on how dogs think, check out www.dognition.com and Dr. Brian Hare, an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center where he studies dogs in an effort to better understand their cognitive abilities. Fascinating reading!
By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP In Partnership with Dogs www.ipwd.ca