What Your Dog is Telling You

IMG_4252We 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 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 your dog knows what you are thinking before you do.

Our dogs also have the experience of trying to communicate something that seems obvious to them that we just don’t get. We disregard the important information that 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. Often we don’t even look to see what our dogs are barking at before we tell them to hush.

Dogs have protected us and warned us of intruders for all of our long histories together. Just because we now live in urban homes and have strangers walking by all day long doesn’t change the deep instinct that dogs feel to alert us to intruders and protect us from invaders.

Sometimes our requests seem ridiculous to our dogs, sometimes incomprehensible. Many times, the miscommunication we have with our dogs comes down to a difference in perspective, combined with a failure to establish a language. By working to deliberately teach our dogs communication skills, we can arrive at a conversation that works for both us and our dogs.

Your Dog is Reasonable


We ask our dogs to resist instinctual impulses which come intensely and unbidden. The least we can do is try to explain why.

If we explain our reasons to our dogs in a way they can understand, they will 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 an explanation or an alternative will build frustration and resentment in a dog in the same way 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.

At the very least, look to see what your dog is barking at before asking her to be quiet. This will teach your dog that she knows you are paying attention to her. Letting your dog know that you A) know why she is barking and B) are unconcerned, will eventually teach her what is worth sounding the alert about.

Your Dog is Always Communicating

IMG_9064.jpgWe 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 in which 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 crinkle of their eyes. To make it more confusing, watching our dogs makes them nervous, which changes their behavior

The book Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones is a great reference put out by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. It is written for the layperson, and although the information and principles are based on scientific research, it isn’t a difficult read. It can go a long way to helping you understand your dog’s more subtle or confusing communications.

Understanding and communication with your dog can best 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 other dogs and people is an awesome way to spot subtle things you may miss with the naked eye.

Communicate Clearly to Your Dog

IMG_2906.jpgYou may think that you generally make yourself clear to your dog, but your dog may not agree. It seems perfectly obvious to you that when you tell your dog “Quiet” when she is barking at someone at the door that you intend for her to be quiet, but your dog may think that you are joining in with the alert, barking “quiet” at the intruder.

To teach a dog real understanding of your commands, you must have a way of marking when she has accomplished the behavior that you are looking for.

A clicker can be a very useful tool since it provides a unique sound to mark a correct behavior. If you ask your dog to be quiet, then click when she is quiet and give her a treat, she is much more likely to understand the command “quiet” and be motivated to respond appropriately next time.

If you want this same kind of response at a distance, you can use a high-quality remote training collar that comes with a good tone and vibration. You won’t ever use the static shock, but it is hard to find remote collars without shock. Good collars let you disable the shock so that you won’t have to worry about accidentally shocking your dog.  Just associate the sound of the beep with a reward, and you will be able to bring your dog back to you or have her behaving with just the push of a button.

While your dog may not understand that you hollering at her in the distance means to come back, the beep will immediately trigger her to remember the coming reward.

Your Dog Needs to be a Dog Sometimes

Part of living with a dog is letting her be a dog whenever you can. Compromise with your dog about the time she spends exerting self-control to fit into your world and the time she gets to spend being a dog. The more often you let your dog have fun and express herself freely, the more respect she will have for the requests you do make, providing you consistently teach self-control, and especially if you always back your requests with desirable rewards and interesting new experiences. Be clear and reasonable about your expectations, and your dog will happily rise to meet them.

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