Commands Are For Siri. Your Dog Isn’t Siri.

In town today I spot a woman walking a pert mini husky past another leashed dog. The mini husky catches a whiff of the approaching dog and takes an interest. Nothing untoward; no barking or pulling or even whining. Still, the woman warns her dog not to make a scene. Shrill and bossy, she commands, “Natasha! Focus! Natasha! Focus!! Focus!!!” The husky does exactly what the woman says, but not what she means: Natasha focuses like a laser…on the other dog. 

Photo by Kateryna Babaieva from Pexels

This gets me musing about the frequent disconnect between what people tell their dogs to do–their “commands”–and how their dogs respond (or don’t). 

Dogs don’t speak English.

They also don’t understand English. Not much, anyway. It’s like trying to get through to someone with shaky English by repeating the SAME THING ONLY LOUDER. Nope, it doesn’t work for dogs either.  

photo by Harry McGregor, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode

We want so much to have conversations with dogs. We have so much to say to each other! But we speak different languages, so there’s a lot of guesswork on both sides. 

Dogs talk to us with body language and barking. But we tend to overlook or misinterpret the body language and try to silence the barking. 

People talk to dogs in a chatty way, with haphazard syntax. Instead of “Snoopy, sit,” we say, “Can you sit, Snoopy?” And if Snoopy doesn’t sit, we try again: “Hey Snoop, you know how to sit. Sit down.” For a dog, this is hard to decode and easy to ignore. It sounds like the gobbledy-goo that humans say to each other, most of which they tune out. 

Back to Natasha. If she doesn’t know what “focus” means, commanding her to do it won’t make it so. Her person needs to teach her what to do–presumably “watch me and ignore that dog.” Then, practice. A LOT. With heaps of positive reinforcement. Now the word “focus” has a meaning and is worth doing. We have the start of a dialogue. 

The dog IS focusing. Just not on the person giving commands. 

If you want to read a dog’s mind, notice what’s got their attention when they’re ignoring you. In that moment, THAT is the thing that matters to them. That’s what you’re competing with. 

Dogs are sentient souls with their own hobbies and agendas, which don’t always align with our own. And dogs aren’t always willing or able to abandon theirs to indulge ours. When there are other things vying for your dog’s attention, it gets way harder for them to focus on you. Accept this as part of the miracle that a human and an animal can share a life despite our vast differences. And of course, double down on training with positive reinforcement. 

photo by Ana-Maria Roceanu via Pexels.com

Whatever you teach, teach it clearly so your dog really gets it. Then practice, practice, practice–first without distractions, next with slight distractions, and build up to big distractions. Reward consistently, and generously, for best results. In time, she’ll be doing what you want before you even ask. That’s you and your dog having an interspecies conversation. 

If a dog makes a scene, a command won’t end it.  

People with quiet dogs scowl at people with dogs that bark at other dogs. They’re judgy.  They’ve never had a dog like that. 

But barking is a normal thing to do when a dog is scared, frustrated, or excited–and for whatever reasons, that’s how a reactive dog feels when she sees another dog. You can’t just tell her to stop feeling it, or stop doing it. A voice command will make Siri play a song or call your mom, but a command won’t make a dog do anything just from uttering it.

What works instead? Teach your dog a different way to feel and act when another dog arrives on the scene. As soon as she notices the other dog–but before she starts to flip out– drop a handful of irresistible treats right in front of her. A confetti storm of meat! Suddenly the other dog is yesterday’s headline; the windfall of hot dogs is breaking news. With enough practice, an oncoming dog will stop triggering reactivity; it’ll spark excitement about the hot dog treasure hunt that’s about to begin. No command needed–she’ll turn to you to start the game. 

And if it’s your dog making the scene, be patient and persistent; training works. Don’t let the smug, quiet-dog people get you down. Whose opinion matters more–theirs, or your dog’s? Your dog knows how great you are. She tells you, every day, without a word of English. 

Photo by Noël Zia Lee – Love, CC BY 2.0 (Creative Commons license)

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