Kerry and Abraham at a local shelter event
He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak. -Michel de Montaigne
Why won’t my dog listen to me? I am asked this question frequently. Usually from a fed-up-to-here dog owner whose dog is merrily running down the street while the owner is frantically yelling and screaming for Fido to come back. Or worse, by the owner who can’t break up the dog fights that are happening withing their own pack. “I yell at them to stop, but they just keep going!”
“STOP OR I’LL SAY STOP AGAIN”
Most humans are only making noise at their dogs. That’s not dog training! They don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them. That’s not how they communicate!
Dogs don’t communicate using noise, except for in some certain instances: If I accidentally step on Orion, he screeches, and I immediately jump off of him. If I’m playing ball with Sparta, she’s bouncing around and barking. If a dog growls at me, he’s telling me to back off. If a pup is trapped, they will start yipping and howling (“get me outta here!”). What do all of these things have in common? Every time a dog makes noise, they are trying to increase the kinetic activity of the pack. Noise = movement. Come, get off me, let’s play, go away…all of these things require movement, and all are initiated and intensified with noise.
Most people start working with their dogs in the same way you would start to teach a human: communication through conversation. Your dog doesn’t understand verbal commands (yet). Their first language is body language. They have no second language. So by talking incessantly to your dog, and gradually increasing the volume, all you are doing is feeding them energy. Of course it backfires.
Look at it like this: if you are at a sporting event, say, a basketball game, what music is playing? Probably at some point Queen’s We Will Rock You comes on to amp up the crowd. Noise equals energy. If calm is what you’re seeking, stop adding energy to the situation!
TWO STEPS TO CALMLY WORKING WITH A DOG
Step 1: Control yourself.
If you are angry, hyper, agitated, etc., it will not work. Take a step back. Sometimes this means quarantining the dog (especially if they’ve just chewed your new iPhone and even looking at them right now poses a safety issue for them). It’s okay to remove them from your sight if you need to calm down. Work with your dog when you are able to control your emotions. I’m not saying don’t get angry – anger is a perfectly normal human emotion, but dogs don’t understand anger. It’s okay to get angry, it’s not okay to give in to anger and let it rule a situation. Acknowledge your are angry, frustrated, etc., and then move on.
Controlling yourself also means controlling your body language. I have a lot of people call me and tell me that their dog hates men. But only towards men. But then I knock on their door, and the dog hates me (and invariably, people ask , “Are you a transv-?” No, I’m not. Thanks for asking). So, why would a dog be aggressive to me but never any other woman? Because of body language.
(Human) men tend to hold themselves like a letter “T”. This says I’m in charge, if you need protection, I’ll protect you. It says I have the answers to your questions. It also says that while I’m not necessarily aggressive, if you come at me or what I’m protecting, I will come back at you. Remember, dominant doesn’t mean aggressive. It just means in confident.
Dog with dominant body language: ears up, tail up, straight lines or “T” shaped
Women on the other hand, tend to sit “like a lady”, like a letter “S”. A letter “S” reads as nurturing, but it also reads as submissive, scared maybe, definitely not trying to take charge, fine to do whatever everyone else wants to do. Remember, submissive can indeed mean fearful and scared, but usually it just means they are in Not Trying To Take Control mode. The more closed off your body language is, the less confidence you appear to have.
A calm submissive dog. She doesn’t want to lead, but she’s not scared or frightened
Scared submissive, probably insecure dog. Ears down, tail down, head down, body “S” shaped
I always sit and stand like a letter “T”. It portrays self-confidence. Think of it as a uniform. In a crisis situation a dog doesn’t look around to see if there is a uniformed police officer or fireman nearby to tell them what to do. They look around to see who is wearing “T” body language. Don’t turn yourself into a pretzel!
This image from the BBC shows human body language. Who is a letter “T” and who is a letter “S”. Who do you think is calm-confident vs. unsure of themselves? Who would you ask directions from if you were lost?
Whew! That was a lot. So to recap, Step 1 is controlling yourself, emotions and body language.
Step 2: Control your current situation
Don’t add any stimulation until you have control of the present situation. Example: front doorbell rings. Your dogs go screaming over to the door, acting like jumping beans, freaking out, and what do you do….you open the door. You never had control of the situation, you just added more stimulation. It’s like yelling at your kids to calm down and giving them some sugar and an espresso to help them calm down. It’s not going to work. And no, holding your dog back doesn’t count as controlling the situation. Control of a situation means you don’t need to use brute force.
The right way to do it:
Doorbell rings. Dogs go crazy at the door. Your dog’s question is, “Is that person at the door a threat?” or “Can I maul Grandma with uncontrollable jumping and love when she comes in the door?” Obviously, you answer the question with a “no”, but calmly, and using the body language described. You calmly approach the door, and using the PAW method outlined here, facing your dogs and backing them off the door, thereby controlling the moment. Then gradually add more and more stimulation, moving towards the door, hand on the knob, opening the door (all done while facing your dogs as much as possible). If you loose control of the current situation at any time (you’ve got them calm, and given yourself some personal space to answer the door, and suddenly all hell breaks loose again!), simply reboot. Answer their question again (“Can I be hyper?” No). Reboot as many times as you need to. Remember, up until this moment, they were the ones answering the door. They were the ones who were checking to see if that person is a threat. Technically, this will be the first time you’v ever answered the door without their help. You can do it. Answer that door when the pizza guy rings the bell.