by Carmen LeBlanc, MS, ACAAB, CPDT
Dogs were the first species ever domesticated by human beings, and over 15,000 years of domestication they have become deeply integrated into human society like no other species ever has.
They are our sentinels and shepherds, our hunting partners and cancer detectors. We’ve developed numerous sports to play with our dogs — pulling us on bicycles and scooters (urban mushing), coursing, scent work, barn hunt, treibball, obedience, agility and tricks. Most importantly, to many of us they are simply one of our closest companions that add meaning, fun and comfort to our lives.
Dogs have integrated into human society more deeply than any other species.
That said, they are still canines and we are still humans. And one of our biggest differences is that we remain the only species on the planet that uses spoken language to communicate. Although dogs and other species communicate with vocalizations (like chirps, meows and growls, some sign language, and even mimicking our words and other sounds), they lack the ability to talk and convey complex meanings like we can easily in conversation over lunch.
So how do we communicate with and teach nonverbal animals like our dogs and cats? Here are common examples I encounter in my practice of how “common sense” and “good instinct” don’t quite get us the desired results.
- You want down-stay when visitors arrive, so common sense says to train the skill when visitors arrive.
- But that’s like teaching driver’s education not first in the parking lot, but while already driving 65 mph on I-5. Good dog training starts with easier first (down-stay with no visitors), which lays the foundation for harder stuff second (down-stay with exciting visitors in your home). It’s like mastering any new skill, whether Spanish, golf, woodworking or shuffle dancing. We have to start at the beginning. Elementary school comes before high school.
- Your dog doesn’t comply with a cue like down. Our instinct is to say it again. Then louder. Then angrily. Finally just physically force the dog. We’re bigger after all.
- But if the dog hasn’t been properly taught the meaning of the word, your nagging is stressful and conveys nothing helpful. And your last resort, hands-on force, may get you a down, but it often gets you a lot more — a dog who avoids your hands, who stiffens and resists, who runs away, who may even growl or bite.
- If your dog barks, growls or lunges at people or other dogs, your instinct is to correct and punish her.
- While punishment may temporarily suppress the unwanted behavior, there’s a world of difference between suppression vs. cure. The behavior returns again and again because punishment ignores the feelings that cause the behavior. And punishment makes dogs feel worse, not better. The real work of behavior therapy for long-term improvement involves specialized techniques that improve behavior and feelings. Change the feelings, eliminate the behavior — permanently!
- You want your dog to stop unwanted behaviors — jumping on people, counter-surfing, growling at children, barking in the car. Common sense (at least based on some info on the internet) says you need to dominate your dog. Show him who’s boss. It’s a hierarchy issue and once you fix it, most behavior problems disappear.
- Except they don’t magically disappear because these are normal dog behaviors that are resolved through skilled training techniques that have nothing to do with hierarchy or being forceful or intimidating to your dog. Think about how we respond to a boss who’s forceful and dominating compared to one who’s supportive and communicates clearly.
Training animals is about technique. Effective, dog-friendly, science-based technique that communicates clearly to a distinct, nonverbal species with different natural behaviors than we have.
It’s also about trust and learning. With good technique, your dog’s trust in you blossoms and his eagerness to work for you builds. Learning happens on both ends of the leash. You learn how to teach, and your dog learns how to listen and comply. It doesn’t require yelling, much less prong or shock collars.
It does require pet owners to find a qualified (educated and certified) behaviorist or trainer and commit some time and energy to mastering a fun new set of skills called behavior modification and dog training. It takes looking a little deeper than common sense. We should recognize our anthropomorphism (thinking of dogs too much like humans), which sometimes harms dogs, and instead embrace the interesting realities of two different species.