Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Angry Owner

"Lady! Lady! Lady, be quiet! Lady, it's ok. Be quiet! LADY! LAAAAAAADY!"

Does this sound like an exchange between you and your dog?  Unfortunately, for too many people, this is exactly how they talk to their dogs.  Of course, it's not always because the dog is barking.  I've often heard, "Sit.  Sit.  Sit, sit sit!  SIT!" while I watch the dog stare on in utter confusion, and it makes me wonder why people try to communicate they way they do.

Dogs do not speak English.  They also don't speak French, Spanish, Italian, or Czech (my husband might argue that all dogs speak German, but I can assure you they don't speak that either).  Dogs speak dog.  Period.  Unfortunately for dogs, most owners only speak primate.  Most owners think the best way to communicate is by repetition and volume.  The problem is, if your dog didn't understand "sit" before, she's not going to understand it simply because you said it louder. 

When training a dog, it's important that we as owners and trainers realize that we're really teaching our dogs ESL (English as a Second Language).  That, however, requires us to speak dog.  Think of it this way, if you were trying to learn Spanish, and had never heard the language before, what good would it do for your Spanish teacher to walk in and say, "Buenas dia, clase.  Sientase por favor."   You'd sit there a bit baffled.  Would it help if your Spanish teacher repeated the command?  "Sientase."  How about if he said it louder?  "SIENTASE!"  What about a clarifier?  "Yo dijo, 'SIENTASE!'"  Do you understand the command yet?  No?  Oh, in that case, "Sit!"  Great, now we're on the same page. 

Unfortunately, this is what our dogs go through every day.  Sit.  Sit!  SIT!  I said, SIT!  Instead of then actually trying to translate for our dog we just become frustrated and angry.  (Note: If you're reading this and can't seem to figure out what the best thing to do in this situation would be, I beg you, please call a trainer or some other animal specialist.  Take the time to learn how to speak to your dog.)

So, how do dogs communicate?  Before I answer that question, let me ask you another.  When you come home from work, what does your dog do?  Does she walk up to you calmly and say, "Oh, hi Mom!  I missed you today.  I'm happy you're home."  No?  Ok, so what does she do?  Does she instead run up to you, tail wagging, face smiling, sometimes jumping all over and giving you kisses?  Yes?  Fantastic.  She's talking.  Dogs communicate with their bodies.  They wag their tales, they raise their fur, they stretch.  They don't need words, their bodies say it all.  Not only that, but their body language is completely different from our own.  Let me give you an example, first from a person's point of view and next from a dog:

Maria was looking for a new dog, so she went to her local shelter.  As she walked through the kennels, she looked to the right and there he was.  Drew was perfect.  Maria walked straight through the door and patted Drew on the head.  She smiled when he backed away and said, "It's ok.  Don't worry."  After a while of petting Maria was in love.  She scooped Drew up, held him close and said, "Ok, I'll take you home."  That's when Drew bit her

Now from Drew's perspective:

Today, I was sitting in my kennel.  It's a soft kennel, a clean kennel.  No one really bugs me.  But today, this weird, two-legged creature came by.  I don't know what I did wrong, but she passed by all my friends, turned right to me and came forward.  I was pretty scared by her challenge (I'm not really an alpha dog) so I backed away a bit.  She really must not have been happy, though, because she kept coming forward and even swiped at me and hit me on the head.  When I tried to back away again, she barred her teeth and whined which was kind of confusing, so I just decided to stand still.  All I could think was, "Please don't hurt me!"    Then, all of a sudden, she lunged!  She grabbed me and was pulling me towards her.  I'm a pretty gentle guy, but I can only take so much.  I had to protect myself.  I bit her.  Thank goodness that worked!

Drew isn't necessarily a mean dog, he just doesn't understand.  While some dogs, especially those raised in a house from puppy-hood, can learn to understand people talk (just like a baby can learn to speak multiple languages spoken in a home) many dogs just haven't had the proper exposure.  Instead of labeling Drew as vicious, aggressive, or even cranky, maybe we should label him as non-fluent...just like he labeled Maria.

Then, instead of condemning this dog to a kennel (or worse), we can try to "speak" to him on his terms so we may both come to a basic understanding.  Once we've learned his language, we can try to teach him some of ours.  That way, when someone else tries to "hug" Drew, we have a way of letting him know it's o.k.

Again, for those of you who just aren't sure what to do, don't be afraid to seek guidance.  Read books, ask a trainer, even talk to your vet.  Just, please, don't write your dog off. 

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