We all know the frustration of trying to communicate something to our dogs that they just don’t seem to get. Whether it is a training goal, a behavior you are trying to change, or just something interesting on a walk that you are trying to point out, sometimes your dog can’t seem to understand. Other times, it seems like she knows what you are thinking before you do.
Our dogs have this same experience of trying to communicate something that seems so obvious to them, that we just don’t get. Sometimes our requests seem ridiculous to them, sometimes incomprehensible. We ask them to deny impulses which come intensely and unbidden, and we ask them to resist their instincts, sometimes constantly. Meanwhile we disregard the important information they communicate to us about the approaching danger represented by the mailman, or the infringement of our territory by the neighbor dog sniffing our fence. Many times, the miscommunication we have with our dogs comes down to a difference in perspective.
Dogs are reasonable. If we carefully explain our thinking to them in a way they can understand, they will come to respect our opinion. Children find it frustrating to be told “because I said so” because they can’t see the reasoning behind the rule. Asking a dog to change a behavior without offering reasons or an alternative will build frustration and resentment in a dog in the same way as it would in a child. Don’t just tell your dog not to bark at the mailman, go with your dog to the fence, speak with the mailman, and show your dog that he is an ok fellow that doesn’t need to be barked at.
We tend to get used to the clear and common communications our dogs use, like barking or pawing at us, and sometimes miss the more subtle or unintentional ways our dogs express themselves. Dogs use the carriage of their tails and ears, the positioning of their bodies, as well as yawns, licks, and barely visible lip movements to express their feelings. Dogs can smile in pleasure or grimace in anxiety, and the difference is sometimes only visible in the shape of their eyes. To make it more confusing, watching our dogs makes them nervous, which changes their behavior. Understanding and communication with your dog can only be achieved after spending many hours together. The more experiences you have with your dog the more understanding you will develop. Videotaping your interactions with your dog and your dogs’ interactions with one another is an awesome way to spot subtle things you may miss with the naked eye.
Part of the compromise of living with a dog is letting her be a dog whenever you can. The more often you let her have fun and express herself freely, the more respect she will have for the requests you do make, especially if you always back those requests with desirable rewards and interesting new experiences. Be clear and reasonable about your expectations, and your dog will happily rise to meet them.