Learn doggish – Teach Humanish


You and your dog live together. Not your dog and the once-a-week group trainer or the trainer-guy on TV. That means that you have to learn the ropes. One-on-one, in-home and on-phone consultations are an excellent way to help you to succeed.

The beauty of a dog is that there is no deceit – a dog can’t lie about his emotions. Having said that, signals that look the same to the human observer can mean different things, depending on the dog’s disposition, the situation and past learned behaviors. Let me illustrate: my dog Davie, while at the dog park, might avert her head when she spots a dog she feels intimidated by. In that context head averting is meant to appease the oncoming trouble. When my other dog Will, the clear underdog between the two, is in Davie’s face to solicit play, she also sometimes averts her head. Then, she is not trying to appease, but tells Will that she is not in the mood – not granting audience.

If Davie could speak English, at the park she would say: “I’m not a threat to you. See, I’m not even looking at you.” Regarding Will it would be more like: “You’re not worth looking at – not worth my time.”

Understanding subtle signals and that same signals can have different meanings, sets the excellent dog owner apart from the good one. Comprehending the fine nuances in dog language allows you to respond to your dog accurately. That has great impact on your relationship. “Wow,” your dog says, “he’s getting me. And he responds to me. I can trust him. He can take charge.” There you have it. Leadership to the satisfaction of your dog. It is only possible if you understand your dog.

Learn doggish   Teach Humanish

The ability to read your dog accurately allows you to proactively interfere before she acts out (leaders are always proactive, not reactive); allows you to protect her (get out of or diffuse a situation that frightens her); and allows you to reinforce (reward) not only behaviors you like, but also the intentions (you can really baffle a dog with that). Your dog will trust you, because you proved that you get it and that you are on top of it.

Learn to read the fine print, impress your dog and accelerate success. 

The second part of the equation is for you to learn how you can use your body, voice and actions deliberately and consciously to teach your dog what you want.

Your pooch observes you all day, regardless if you are aware of it or not. She, as a species domesticated since some 14.000 years or so, knows that you are not a dog. She will never be able to communicate with you in any other language but hers – but she has amazing receptive human language skills. Talking to her in doggish confuses her.

Some body language humans and dogs have in common, and you might already inadvertently use it. A nasty look, a hard stare, means the same for dogs and people. Nicely put: “Back off – stop that.”

Encroaching into someones space straight-on resembles both confidence and rudeness. Also understood by both species for what it is.

To communicate deliberately in a way that makes sense to your dog takes more than just using signals you both have in common. During the last 10 years or so learning concepts developed by scientists, such as Pavlov’s classical and Skinner’s operant conditioning, have become popular with positive dog trainers. The laws of behaviors, stimuli, responses, and learning are universal to all mammals, including humans, and are therefore excellent tools you can use to teach your dog. Your chosen dog expert should be familar with them, and ideally also with Bandura’s Social Learning.

Although proven, and when applied correctly, kind methods, they are not always effective. They are not the answer to all problems and certainly do not guarantee a rewarding human-dog relationship. The results are limited because science takes place in a laboratory, in artifical structured environments (or in the wild – with sometimes wild conclusions as we saw with the Alpha-wolf training theory).

You and your dog live in the real world and encounter situations you can’t always predict or control. The only thing you can learn to do is to predict your dog’s actions and control your responses.

In addition, as many scientists still today, Pavlov and Skinner conducted studies and drew conclusions as if their subjects were objects, mere mindless stimulus-response machines. If that’d be true for dogs, we would not choose them as our life companions.

Science gives us valuable insight into behavior, but has its limitations in a human-dog relationship that is based on trust, respect, love and fears. For that you need to learn more: breed specific behaviors, past experience fears and handicaps, individual genetic make-up, also called disposition, and the impact of social influences.

So we use all of the above to teach our dogs. Our engagement with them should be fluid, incorporating science based methods, feelings, the semantics of words, intentions of thought and energy through movement. Applied that means know and control the dogs motivator.

We also know that our dog has emotions such as fear and love, and that it is up to us to keep her emotionally happy and safe; understand that the words we speak have meaning and set the tone for engagement; understand the power of intention, how we think about our dog and the goal we have; and use our body to radiate stalwartness and strength.