Talk to the Animals – How Our Dogs Communicate

“But animals don’t always speak with their mouths,” said the parrot in a high voice, raising her eyebrows. “They talk with their ears, with their feet, with their tails—with everything. Sometimes they don’t WANT to make a noise. Do you see now the way he’s twitching up one side of his nose?”

“What’s that mean?” asked the Doctor.

“That means, ‘Can’t you see that it has stopped raining?’” Polynesia answered. “He is asking you a question. Dogs nearly always use their noses for asking questions.”

- Hugh Lofting, The Story of Dr. Dolittle

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I frequently wonder why there aren’t more dog bites happening.  We humans do the craziest things.  We take a dog out of it’s natural environment (outside), “domesticate” it (well, not entirely), and then expect poor Fido to act human.  He barks – let’s use a shock collar.  He pees on the floor – let’s rub his nose in it.  He pulls on a leash – prong collar it is.  Why? He needs to be punished, so he knows he’s been bad.  

The concept of punishing a dog always confused me.  People tell me they do it so the dog knows that it “did wrong”.  But in reality, have they? Dogs are very honest creatures.  They aren’t conniving.  They aren’t diabolical.  They don’t bluff.  Unlike, say…Oh I don’t know.  Maybe….

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In other words, they’re dogs, not cats.

So how can a dog be bad?  Fido’s problem isn’t that he’s a bad dog.  Fido’s problem is that he’s a horrible human.  And you’re punishing him for it.  

Well, guess what?  We don’t always make the best dogs.

Rather than placing blame (on either species) and feeling the need to punish, let’s focus on how to more effectively, and humanely, communicate with our dogs. To do that, we need to understand where they are coming from.

Dogs ask questions.  A lot of questions.  All day long, nonstop.  For example:

"Can I eat that?"

“Can I eat that?”

"If he doesn't want it, can I have it?"

“If he doesn’t want it, can I have it?”

Yes, most of their questions do revolve around food.  But rather than punishing them for asking a question, let’s just do the logical thing and answer their questions.

Dogs are binary creatures.  Everything is “yes” or “no”.  Think of it as a giant game of hot/cold.  Even easier, “yes” is the absence of “no”.  (If you have kids you know exactly what I mean.)  Or imagine if you’re at a dinner party, and there’s one more piece of cake left.  You ask if anyone minds if you take that last piece of cake.  You pause for a few moments, but since nobody has said “no”.  So you take that piece of cake and enjoy it.

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So how do you answer a dog’s questions?  Body language.  As Polynesia the parrot from Dr. Dolittle pointed out above, animals don’t (usually) use their voices to communicate.  For the most part, they use body language.  All you need to effectively communicate with your dog is to learn how to tell Fido “no” in a way he understands, without resorting to violence, while still respecting each of you.  A simple answer to a simple question. We call this Piloting your dog.

Step 1 – Control Yourself.
If you’re angry, rushed, annoyed, hyper….it’s not going to work.  Fido is simply going to fling that energy right back at you like monkeys at the zoo.  Be calm.  Or at least pretend to be calm.

Make sure you’re controlling your body language, too.  Stand up straight.

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Step 2 – Control the Situation

You can not add stimulation until you have control of the current situation.  For example, how many times has someone knocked at your door, and your dog goes charging at the door, barking up a storm and causing a commotion…and you just open the door.  You didn’t control the situation, you added more chaos to the situation.  So don’t add to the chaos until you’ve controlled the current issue. Sometimes that may mean moving backward a couple steps.

For instance, when you go to answer the door.  You answer your dog’s questions using body language (“Mom, do you need help at the door?” No.  “Okay!” *sits down*), and they’ve accepted your answer to their question.  So you open the door…..

...And they see it's Grandma

…And they see it’s Grandma

Rather than inviting Grandma inside to “enjoy” this display of loving affection, ask her to wait a moment, close the door you just opened (thereby removing stimulation) and regain control of the situation.  Now you let her in.

Step 3 – Add Stimulation/Answer More Questions

You controlled the situation, so you were able to add more stimulation.  More questions will come up, (“Did you bring me anything, Grandma?!”) and more answer will have to be given.

So exactly how do you give your dog an answer?  Easy.  Remember, we’re using body language …their language.

To tell a dog “no”, simply pretend they are a lot taller, and you are trying to hit them with your belly button (pretend there’s a little laser beam coming out of your navel).  Stand up straight, and simply walk into them, with your feet like a letter “V” (so you don’t step on his toes!).  Don’t baby-step it.  You aren’t angry, but you aren’t timid either.  You are acting confident you have the right answer, which in this instance, happens to be “no”.

A better way to visualize is this:

If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it with his body language, as Polynesia the Parrot would tell you. If you do not want your dog to have it, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.  Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, engaged with anything but the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.  (He’s a dog.  He’s allowed to ask a question more than once.)  Use the appropriate amount of body language for each question he’s asking.  For example, if he’s politely asking if he may have the treat, please don’t go charging at him like the Kool-Aid Man.

Unnecessary

Unnecessary

You can claim anything…the door, Grandma, even his behavior such as barking.  He’s asking a question: Can I bark?  The answer is “no”.  Simply move at him using the body language, until he ceases, even for a moment.  Yes, you may have to answer the same question over and over initially, but now you’re starting to communicate in a way he understands.

Communication.  That’s what a happy, healthy, trusting relationship is built on, regardless of the species.  Yelling and shouting, that’s not respect, that’s frustration.  But what if you could talk with the animals?  Answer your dog’s questions?  Well, that’s the basis of communication.  So start “talking” to your dog…in the way they understand.  Stop being human, and expecting human behavior from your dog.  Because they are already perfect the way they are, all they need is for you to see how they speak, and to start communicating.

Yes, you can “talk” to the animals.

 

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

When the Dog Trains the Trainer – What Dogs Have Taught Me

I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.

Galileo Galilei

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I’ve been training dogs for many years.  I’ve seen clients’ dogs as puppies, heard updates about them through the years, and been crushed at the news that they’ve crossed the rainbow bridge.  After all these years, I still learn something new about dogs after each session.  Sometimes it’s something small, such as a new way to decrease shedding.  Sometimes it’s something profound that will change the ways I train with the PAW Method. Because learning never ends.  I will never know everything there is to know about dog behavior.  The science behind it will never “prove” anything; it’s merely a hunt for more facts to back up working theories about dog behavior, and making adjustments accordingly.  Kinda like cooking:  you have your tried and true recipe for lasagna, but while out to eat one day you discover an ingredient added to the restaurant’s version.  You realize it will improve the flavor of your own recipe, so you add it to your ever-adapting version.  Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon.

Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works.

That goes for me personally, too.  We all know that dogs will change you; always for the better, if you let them.  Be willing to add their wonderful traits to your own.  Traits such as living in the moment.  Knowing gratitude.  And sometimes something so simple as how to breathe properly. But what about other things?  How has working with dogs and owners over the years changed me? The answer: profoundly.

I can let things go easier.  Nothing personal.  That’s a dog’s motto.  They don’t do anything to get back at you…they merely do things for themselves.  And that’s a major distinction.  How does that translate into life?  Well, that $&*! who cut me off on the highway wasn’t trying to ruin my day…they were trying to make theirs easier.  And that mind frame has made all the difference in my attitude.  Just let it go.

I’ve lost “stranger danger”.  Every session I walk into involves a stranger.  Sometimes up to three times a day I walk into a strange house and try to bond with the humans, gain the dog’s trust and “fix” whatever is going wrong between the dogs and the humans.  All within two hours.  There’s no room for awkwardness with the humans.  Thanks to the power of speech, I can bond with the humans pretty quickly and form a “pack” mentality of let’s solve this issue together pretty quickly.  The first couple of years it was rough (I’m actually rather introverted), but like anything else, the more you do it, the less you have to do it.

I feel ya.

I feel ya.

Laughter really IS the best medicine. The first order of business when trying to create pack?  Get the humans to laugh.  Or at least smile.  Okay, how about a mercy chuckle? Because nothing says “we’re friends here” like a show of teeth. From the humans anyway.  I need the humans to trust me, and formality isn’t the way to go.  Sometimes all it takes is one shared laugh, and suddenly I’m not a stranger to them anymore. A sense of humor is imperative when working with dogs, or humans, but especially when working with both.

See what I did there?

See what I did there?

I’m not afraid of being afraid anymore.  Notice I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid anymore.  Believe me, I’m plenty scared when I walk into a house with an aggressive 90lb dog who thinks I’m ugly and dresses funny. Fear is rational; it keeps us safe.  It keeps me from doing something stupid.  Being afraid of fear…now that’s a different story.  I have a nodding acquaintance with fear now. I’m not always thrilled when it shows up, but I know it’s there for a reason.  The thing is, fear is an accessory, not the entire wardrobe.  I am not defined by what I’m afraid of.  My fear is just another tool, be it my fear of getting bit, or my fear of driving over the Valley View Bridge. Fear isn’t good, nor is it bad.  It just is.

The Valley View Bridge.  Hang on, lady, we're going for a ride.

The Valley View Bridge. Hang on, lady, we’re going for a ride.

Potential pack has a much broader definition. Being cautious around things that are unfamiliar is normal and natural.  It’s what keeps us safe.  Fortunately for me, I’m constantly exposed to new people, thoughts, religions, and orientations.  I’ve worked with gays, straights, transgender and cross-dressers.  I’ve worked with old, young an in-between.  I’ve trained athletes and quadriplegics. The scary thing at first is that they’re different from me.  Then the most wonderful, impressive thing at the end is how they’re different than me.  While I accept that being introduced into a new situation is scary, I’m lucky to have been exposed to yet another wonderful variation on a familiar theme: human. And guess what?  We’re all mad, crazy, fun, annoying, amazing beings.

Yes, Sally, even you.

Yes, Sally, even you.

I don’t glory in being right, because, well…I’m not always write right. I’ll never forget a training session about 5 years ago.  A family set up a date and time over email.  I show up, and they’re aren’t ready, and they didn’t expect me, and were actually on their way out.  I was furious.  I had re-arranged my schedule to make sure I could be at their house, and had, as a courtesy, traveled outside my normal area.  However, even though I was in the right, I managed to maintain calmness and said I would call to reschedule. I got home, reviewed their email so I could really lay it on thick about how wrong they were, when I realized: I was wrong. I showed up on the wrong day.  I was the one who made the mistake.  To top it all off, they were exceptionally polite and well mannered about my mistake.  I vowed never again to take the “rub their noses in it” attitude in the case of an honest mistake.

Writing this post makes me realize how working with dogs and people has enriched my life.  My life would have been completely different without having had these opportunities.  So to the furballs, wriggle-butts and rope-toy-tuggers (uh, that’s you, canines).  Thank you.  And to you fellow sapiens, I couldn’t have done it without you, either.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio