What Did You Say?

Communication is hard.  It can be confusing and frustrating. We’ve all been there. On both ends. I say something to someone, and they totally misinterpret it. No, that’s not what I meant!  Sometimes they believe me. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they cling to their interpretation…even when I’m adamantly stating that I meant something different. Now emotions get involved and things quickly degrade. And we have a big mess to untangle. Communicating with humans is hard.

Communicating with dogs is arguably even harder. It’s often confusing and frustrating. The question “Why??” Comes up with incredible frequency. Why did that happen? Why did they do that? The process is even more challenging because dogs don’t speak our language. Let me repeat that. Dogs don’t speak our language. On some level we all know that. Yet quite often all of us communicate with them in our language. And expect them to understand. We often insist they know something, even if their behavior indicates otherwise. It’s not uncommon for us to forget that words are not our dogs’ primary means of communication. That dogs are contextual. They like pictures. They are watching our every tiny move, expression, and weight shift. We are often giving them cues without even realizing it. Sometimes that works to our advantage. Other times it doesn’t. We create behaviors we don’t want without even realizing it. Trying to understand our dogs is just as challenging. Some of their behaviors look like ours. But they don’t always mean the same thing. Sometimes dogs scratch because they itch. Sometimes they scratch because they are stressed or confused. Dogs yawn. But it’s not always because they are tired. Sometimes they yawn when they are worried. Other times they yawn because they are adjusting their arousal. Sometimes they sneeze because their nose is itchy. Some of my dogs sneeze to bring their arousal level and focus up…or down. Some dogs sneeze when they are confused or nervous. Sometimes dogs sniff the ground because it smells good. Other times it’s displacement, or confusion, or avoidance. Still other times they are processing. Oh my!! No wonder it’s so hard! And confusing! For us and for them!

The first step in good dog communication is awareness.  Being aware that every move you make, no matter how tiny, influences our dogs. Once you become aware, you pay attention. When something doesn’t go as planned, ask yourself “what did I do to cause that?” You evaluate what you did. You videotape or ask your training partner. You take responsibility. You won’t get it right every time. But you will get it right more and more often. And that’s a win.

When reading your dog, you need to keep an open mind. You should always question and wonder. Did I read that right? What are all the possibilities? What was the context? What happened immediately before? I’ve seen my dog do that before…hmmm something’s going on. This always happens before/after something…what’s the connection? You consult with trainers that are experts in dog language. Behaviorists are masters at this. I learned tons from a behaviorist I consulted with regularly several years ago. I learned an enormous amount of information about arousal and how to manage it, on reading dogs, on pressure and how it influences our dogs, and so on. There were some beliefs I had held for years, that I suddenly realized were false. Those lessons taught me to pay attention. To think differently. And reinforced the value of seeking help when I just can’t figure it out…and even when you think you have, you may still learn more. Recently, fellow Fenzi instructor Sharon Carroll shed a completely new light on Zayna’s personality and behavior. It altered how I train her and has had a profound impact not just on her behavior, but on her emotional state (and mine). And for that I am eternally grateful. Training dogs is hard because communicating with dogs is hard. That doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it. We owe it to our dogs to continually learn and improve. To think outside the box. To experiment and have an open mind. Communication is hard. But when two people (or two species) have an amazing relationship because of good mutual communication, it’s totally worth it.