For the most part (winter weather aside), I really like where I live. My husband and I own a great little house on the outskirts...


For the most part (winter weather aside), I really like where I live. My husband and I own a great little house on the outskirts of a relatively great little city in upstate New York. As a former history major, this area is fascinating to me. It was once a thriving, bustling city – birthplace of both Endicott Johnson and International Business Machines (IBM). These industries were once the lifeblood of this community, and helped bring a very rich, ethnically diverse population to our area.

I was at a local store recently and observed a woman who did not speak English trying to get help with something. She was talking to a clerk, visibly frustrated and somewhat frantic. Likewise, the clerk was frustrated. I heard him say, loudly, “The bathroom is over there!” pointing toward the restrooms. The woman looked where he pointed, shook her head, and once again tried to communicate with the clerk. He repeated, more loudly and this time V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y, “THE BATHROOM IS OVER THERE!”

Maybe she wasn’t looking for the bathroom. Maybe she was looking for baby formula. Customer service. Maybe someone to call the police as her vehicle had been broken into or needed someone to call 911 because her husband had a heart attack in the car and she couldn’t find a hospital. Regardless, the young family left together shortly, obviously not having received the help they needed. I felt bad for the clerk and the family – the whole interaction was obviously discouraging and frustrating for all involved parties.

It reminds me of a comic I saw once. A man is shopping for clocks. He asks the clerk, “Do you have clocks? DO YOU HAVE CLOCKS?” and the comment underneath read, “It’s a good thing Chuck raised his voice, because Pedro understood loud English”

Seeing this whole exchange oddly made me feel like I was at class. I see the same frustration when many handlers interact with their dogs. I think we forget sometime that dogs don’t “naturally” speak English or any spoken language. People will call their dog’s name over and over again as their dog happily ignores them in play. First louder, then in a more “playful” tone of voice, then a frustrated voice, then an “I’m getting really mad at you!” voice. Guess what? If your dog doesn’t know it, it doesn’t matter how you say it, she won’t listen to you. If you haven’t trained to the level of distraction in the environment, again it doesn’t matter how loud you say it, how often you say it, or how angry you sound when you say it – indeed, all of these things, repeating the cue over and over again puts you on the path to learned irrelevance and a dog that tunes out more often than she tunes in to your station.

Repeating a cue over and over again when your dog doesn’t know it well or in a particular environmental context is much like screaming at someone “THE BATHROOM IS OVER THERE” when they don’t even speak your language. Similarly, your dog likely cannot communicate effectively with you until you take the time to learn her language; the rich and interesting communication that is canine body language.

If your dog has not been trained to really have a solid understanding of a cue (which, depending on the behavior and the dog, may take weeks, months, or years), she won’t listen regardless of:

  • how loud you say it
  • how many times you say it
  • how frustrated you get when you say it
  • if you scream it
  • if you jump on your head or make weird hand gestures

At the same time, if you insist on asking your dog to do something you haven’t taught her to perform and she refuses to do it, it is not because she:

  • is stupid
  • is lazy
  • is stubborn
  • is dominant
  • is spiteful
  • doesn’t want to please you
  • is trying to ruin your life or self-esteem as a dog owner

Lack of response simply signifies need for more and/or different training (or, in rarer instances, a possible health issue, as in the dog that refuses a sit/stay because of arthritis or hip problems).

There’s also a big difference between “knowing a little” and fluency. I took French throughout middle school, high school, and college. We started with ABC’s. Syntax, grammar, conjugation, etc. came much later. It took me a long time before I could read Le Petit Prince. Years later, without practice, I couldn’t even hold up my end of a basic conversation in French. Learning a new language takes time and practice. Language, like training, is a “use it or lose it” enterprise for most. You don’t go from learning your ABC’s to writing a novel in French. Similarly, you don’t go from “sit” in your living room to an immediate “sit” when your dog is deep in the midst of doggy play with her favorite playmate.

Communication with dogs is a two-way street. You need to teach them your language and learn theirs if you’re ever to be successful as a team. If I begin speaking to you in Japanese and you don’t respond, is it because you’re stupid or stubborn, or because we’re just not speaking the same language? People that don’t speak your language are not idiots, nor are dogs who don’t respond to cues they haven’t been taught well. Be patient and empathetic with your dog – it can’t be easy to find yourself in a society where you are expected to understand a language you’ve never been taught.

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