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.
This gets me musing about the frequent disconnect between what we tell our dogs to do–our “commands”–and how they respond. Or don’t. Here are a few thoughts:
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.
Natasha doesn’t know what “focus” means until somebody shows her. And practices. A LOT. With heaps and heaps of positive reinforcement. Only then will Natasha understand what to do AND be motivated to actually do it.
Natasha IS focusing. Just not on the woman who’s shouting at her.
If you want to read a dog’s mind, see what they’re paying attention to 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, or double down on the positive reinforcement training.
If your dog makes a scene, a command won’t make it stop.
People whose dogs bark at other dogs want to end the commotion as fast as they can. They’re mortified. It’s hard not to be, when people with quiet dogs give you that judgy scowl. They don’t know what it’s like; they’ve never had a dog like that.
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. Commands will make Siri search the Internet or call your mom, but they won’t make your dog do anything just by shouting them.
Training helps a LOT, but not overnight. In the meantime, don’t let the smug, quiet-dog people shame you. 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.