By Sara Sokol, Mr. Dog Training
As a positive reinforcement trainer, one of my top priorities is building a bond between my clients and their dogs built on communication, trust, respect, and love. With any good relationship, communication is the foundation on which the entire relationship is built, so
I’ve put together this list of 10 things that your dog would like to communicate to you. I hope that reading this helps strengthen the relationship that you have with your dog.
- Not A Wolf
The assumption that, because domesc dogs are descended from wolves, they should be treated as such is an extraordinarily outdated one. Comparing dogs to wolves is similar to comparing humans to chimpanzees; while we share many traits and genes, we have evolved into a completely different species.
While dogs are generally social creatures, it is incorrect to think that dogs are pack animals just because they are descended from animals that are. Free roaming, stray dog populations form loose,
transient groups primarily focused around food sources, not a traditional family pack like wolves do. Since dogs are not pack animals, it is also incorrect to think that they need a “pack leader”.
- I Am Not Stubborn
Stubbornness is a human trait that we project onto our dogs
to explain what is usually a lack of communication, training, or understanding of how they learn.
Instead of calling your dog stubborn, ask yourself the following questions:
Have you practiced the behavior you are asking for? Keep in mind that added distractions need to be used and practiced around for consistency.
What’s your reinforcement history? Does pulling you down the street towards people and other dogs get reinforced by you allowing it to happen, or do you have a history of reinforcing a behavior you want in these situations?
Are you communicating clearly? How many times are you saying your cue? Have you been using your marker and release words while training? Have you been reinforcing the behavior? If your dog doesn't understand your method of communication, should that be labeled "stubborn"?
- My Wagging Tail Doesn’t Always Mean I’m Happy
Dogs often wag their tails when they are happy, but there can be many other reasons they do so. The tail is an essential tool in the dog’s communication toolbox, and the height, motion, speed and whether it’s tense or relaxed are all important.
For example, a low, flicky
wag could be a dog who is uncomfortable in a situation while a tail held up higher and wagging faster (a flagging tail) could mean a dog is alert and/or aroused. To get the whole picture, the dog’s tail must be read in context with the rest of its body.
- I need to Use My Brain and My Body
A dog’s need for structured exercise and mental stimulation is as basic as its or any other animal’s need for food, water, shelter, etc. Ignoring or punishing your dog’s attention seeking behavior caused by boredom from a lack of adequate structured exercise and mental stimulation is no different than ignoring or punishing a child for crying because he’s cold, hungry, or thirsty.
Feeding your dog its meals out of enrichment toys, going for daily leash walks, playing scent games, and allowing your dog to sniff are all ways of meeng those needs and are a great way to have fun and bond with your dog!
- I Need to Be Comforted When I’m Afraid
Another falsity is that we should ignore our dogs when they are afraid; that, by comforting them when they are afraid, we will only encourage and reinforce fear.
This is simply not true since only behaviors can be reinforced, not emotions.
Comforting your dog will only help it feel better when it is afraid, and will show it that you are its partner whom it can trust and who will take care of them.
- My Behavior Is Connected to My Emotions
Imagine you are afraid of spiders. Now imagine that you are surrounded by spiders and maybe there are even a few on you. Now imagine someone is trying to teach you Portuguese in this spider- infested environment? You probably wouldn’t do well with this lesson because your FEAR of spiders would be your top concern, not learning to speak Portuguese. Asking a dog who is uncomfortable or anxious in the presence of people, other dogs, or loud noises to sit, focus on you, or learn to stay when those things are around isn’t going to be a success or be fair to your dog. Making sure that your dog feels safe and comfortable is top priority before you start to train or expect a specific behavior from them.
Dogs may not always be in the mood to be petted, so I recommend, “asking” them. After three seconds of petting, go ahead and stop. What does your dog do? Does it move towards your hand and elicit more touch or does it move away, shake off, or seem content with not being petted? Be aware of calming signals like lip licking, yawning, or turning its head away from you when you are petting, for this can be a sign that it is not enjoying the interaction. Try to avoid petting a dog on the top of the head since most dogs only tolerate touch there; instead, focus on the sides of the body, the chest, and behind the ears.
- It’s Not Just How You Raise Me
Genecs are the STRONGEST factor in what type of dog your puppy will grow up to be. The best predictor of whether or not a dog will be friendly, fearful, confident, or aggressive is the genetics of the parents. Proper socialization during the imprint period as well as protecting puppies from traumatic events will all help shape the puppy that you have, but we are all products of our genetics and dogs are no different.
- Not Guilty
The idea of right or wrong and good or bad are very much human concepts. What we have come to think of as a guilty dog (ears pinned, tail low, head turning away, submissive grinning) are instead, signs of a dog that is afraid. Dogs are experts at association, so if your arrival home starts to signal you scolding them because they have gotten into the trash or chewed the sofa, then that association is made, and your arrival home will make them fearful not guilty. So, the next time you find yourself thinking that your dog feels “guilty,” think about the associations that it has made and make a change in your patterns.
- Food and Play Help Me Learn
Positive reinforcement training has been shown to make dogs happier, more willing learners, and does wonders for the relationship between dog and handler.
Food or toys used as rewards will make your dog happy! Dogs will begin to pair training with those happy things so that the simple act of asking your dog to sit or saying “yes” will make your dog just as happy as the food or toys do! Contrary to popular opinion, using a harsh tone or “correcting” a dog for failure to comply will have the opposite effect, causing the dog to appear “stubborn” and necessitating the use of more force to combat the resistance. Alternatively, the use of positive reinforcement creates an enthusiastic learner, eager
to comply for the sheer joy of performance. Train happy!