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.

giphy (8)

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

The Difference Between “Wait” Command and “No”

Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.

Joyce Meyer

Boots and Bee Photography by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography by Brittany Graham

I hate the “wait” command that some people teach their dogs.  In a world full of useless commands, this has to be the most useless.  I see it play out all the time while I’m training.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Perhaps some background is necessary. Let’s set this story up properly, perhaps using the typical training session as an example.  So I present to you, Wait For It, an original play written by Kerry Stack.

Cast:

Kerry Stack:  Dog Trainer  Beautiful, graceful, always well-dressed with a witty comment on the tip of her tongue (hey, it’s my  play….I can be whomever I want to in it).

Angelina Jolie can play me in the movie adaption of my play.  Our resemblance is uncanny.

Angelina Jolie can play me in the movie adaption of my play. Our resemblance is uncanny.

SophieDog Owner.  Super-wonderful owner, but having some issues with her dog knocking people over at the door, as well as some mild dog reactivity.

Ajax: Handsome mix roughly a year old.  Big boy, weighing in at roughly 100 lbs. Typical No No Bad Dog.

ACT I, Scene I
Sophie’s House

Kerry has been called to meet with and work with Ajax.  Upon meeting Ajax, he immediately rushes up to Kerry, jumping on her before she’s even through the entranceway.  Kerry, knowing full well she can’t Pilot a dog who doesn’t know her yet, simply pushes him off of her, stands up straight, and allows the dog to smell her until he’s a bit more comfortable with her presence.  Now they are ready to begin the training session. 

Kerry begins to describe the things a dog needs:  Piloting, Activity and Work, stressing the importance of each. They discuss Activity, and various ways to make sure Ajax is getting enough (hint: it doesn’t have to be walking non-stop), Kerry also addresses issues with Ajax being bored, meaning he needs more Work.  Now they are ready to tackle the big problem:  Piloting.  

Kerry:  Piloting is the big issue you are having here.  The reason I refer to it as Piloting is this – imagine you are on an airplane, and there’s only one Pilot.  Mid-flight the Pilot dies.  What are you going to do?

Sophie:  Panic?  I don’t know…try to fly the plane!

Kerry:  Exactly.  And how do you feel flying that plane?  Nervous, excited, desperate, overwhelmed and overstimulated.  All because you’ve been put in charge of a crisis situation that you don’t understand and you can’t control.  Who does that sound like?  Ajax.  Each and every time someone rings your doorbell, that’s a potential crisis situation for Ajax.  Is it a threat?  Is it a friend?  By the time he gets to the door, he’s so worked up over the situation he literally can’t control himself, nor the situation.

Sophie:  So how do I handle it, and let him know it’s not a threat?  That I can answer the door without his help?

Kerry:  By answering his questions.  Dogs have a lot of questions.  Most of them are pretty stupid…”Can I eat this?”  ”Can I eat this after the cat ate it?”  Regardless of how stupid you think the questions are, you still have to answer them.  And some of his questions are pretty important.  ”Is the person at the door a threat?”  ”Do you need help?”  Those questions need to be answered, and in a way that Ajax understands.  Dogs are not based upon vocality or language.  Dog’s first language is body language. They have no second language.  Sure, you can spoon-feed them a few words in English….sit, come, etc., but the most precise way to communicate with your dog is with their native language.  So we’re going to respect them enough to use their language in their presence: body language.

Dogs happen to be binary creatures, though. This means that every question they ever ask you will be a “yes” “no” question, and every answer you give them will be a “yes” or “no”.  It’s like a giant game of “Hot or Cold”.  The questions Ajax asks (“Do you need me to answer the door?”) are answered with a “no”.  Just remember, Ajax isn’t bad, he’s merely asking a question, and the answer happens to be “no”.   So let’s practice the body language involved first.

I’m going to take these treats in my hand, put them on the floor, and tell Ajax (using body language) that he’s not allowed to have them.  What do you think Ajax is going to do?

Sophie:  Well, we have been working on the “wait” command.  He’s not allowed to have his food, any treats, etc., until we release him from that command.

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Kerry:  But remember, I’m not telling him “wait”, I’m telling him “no”.  There’s a huge difference.

(Kerry puts the food on the floor, and answers Ajax’s question, “Can I have the treat?” by using body language.  Ajax sits on the floor and looks to Kerry to see what to do next)

Kerry:  So he’s no longer engaged with the food.  Here’s my question: when does he get the treat?

Sophie: When he’s good?

Kerry:  My answer is “never”.  This isn’t a trick. I’m not teaching him “wait” and you can have what you want.  The problem is that you’re teaching him “wait”, which then ends with his getting whatever it is he wants.  Yes, he has to be a little patient, but he always gets what he wants in the end.  So when you’re trying to tell him “wait” at the door, what you really mean is “no”.  As in never.  You never need his help at the door.  Unfortunately, up until now, he’s never been taught to understand that some things are “no”…he’s been learning to wait to get what he wants.  But what if that was a baby wrapped in bacon on the floor?  If he’s polite and patiently waited for a few moments, does he then get the baby?   Or even better, have you ever tipped a waitress for not stealing your purse?  No, because that’s yours.  You don’t reward someone for not taking what’s yours.  The same concept applies to Ajax. The door is yours.  Whomever is behind the door is yours.  

(Kerry works a little bit with Sophie to make sure she understands the body language involved. Within a few minutes, Sophie is able to answer the door without drama, a first for her and Ajax.  For a more detailed description on how to answer “no” for you dog, check out this blog post)

***

As you can see, “wait” means nothing to a dog, because it’s difficult for a dog to understand that concept appropriately.  In dog world, either they can have something (human, food, door, etc.) or they can’t.

When feeding my dogs, I don’t use the “wait” command.  I get their food ready, and they “ask” if they can have it yet.  My answer is “no”.

Boot and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boot and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

When I’m ready, I call them to their enrichment toys so they can eat.

When someone rings the doorbell, they ask if I need help at the door.  My answer is no.

Sometimes I put food on the ground, and they ask if they can have it.  Sometimes my answer is no, and they never get it.  Sometimes my answer is yes.

“Wait” involves a mindset that I think we need to change as humans.  We use that word as a place filler, for when we don’t want to come across as “mean”.  But since when is claiming what is yours “mean”?  My job as a Pilot/dog owner isn’t to make sure my dogs get everything they want, it’s to make sure they get what the need.  In some instances, that’s a definite “no”.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio