“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
When I was a child, Dr. Doolittle was one of my very favorite things to read in the Whole Wide World. It was a book written in the 1920's, and I read the book years before I ever saw any of the movies. For the time it was written, it was groundbreaking, the concept of animals as sentient beings, capable of emotions, feelings. It was a harkening of the dawn of animal rights, and treating animals humanely.
Yes, the book was silly and fanciful (as were subsequent movies), but 8-year old me quite agreed with Polynesia the Parrot: we should try talking with the animals rather than treating them, like, well... animals. And that is what I've based my dog training on for the past 20 years: communication, which starts with empathy and compassion.
As Rex Harrison points out in the 1967 Dr. Doolittle movie,
Why do we treat animals like animals?
How can people be so inhumane?
Cows and chickens work to feed us,
Dogs and horses show they need us,
And though cats don’t always heed us
Their affection is plain.
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….
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. And some of us don't even make good human beings.
Kim Jong-un: I'm the worst human
Martin Shkreli: Hold my shot.
So rather than placing blame on the humans or the dogs, 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. Let's start at the beginning.
Dogs ask questions. A lot of questions. All day long, nonstop.
Will you please pet me?
Mind if I steal this?
Is that a squirrel over there?
I honestly have no idea what this dog is asking, but I felt obligated to post it for your viewing pleasure.
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”.
Training dogs: 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”, you take that piece of cake and enjoy it.
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.
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 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”. Learn more about how to do that in this link
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.
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. Learn more about how to answer your dog's questions here.
Communication is 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 instead of punishing them for having a question? Empathy is the basis of communication. The desire to communicate rather than punish; to understand.
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
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio