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)

Biting the Hand that Feeds You?

Crackers is a plushy, snuggly rag doll of a dog–except when he’s growling, snapping and nipping at his “dad” Don. This doesn’t seem to add up, because by all accounts Don is the one who feeds Crackers every morning and walks him more than his wife and kids. When the family gathers around the TV at night, Crackers jumps on the couch and settles next to Don, even sprawls across his lap. But sometimes even here, Crackers suddenly snaps.

Why does Crackers want to bite the hand that feeds him? If he likes Don enough to cozy up to him on the couch, how can he also dislike him enough to bite him? Is it some kind of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome–two opposite personalities in the same body?

Actually, there’s no paradox here. 

Dogs don’t growl or snap because they don’t like someone. They do it because they don’t like something that’s happening to them. They want it to stop. And they say so, with body language that other dogs easily read and respond to. When they use that language with us, it’s foreign; it doesn’t translate. We don’t get the message until it escalates to a growl or a bite. Then, at last, we stop. If only we could decode the earlier signs…?

We can. This is how dogs say, “Please stop, give me space.”

  • Flicking their tongue and/or licking their lips when they haven’t just eaten something  (Here’s my dog saying “Please stop leaning over me!” Oops.)
  • Yawning when they’re not tired 
  • Panting when it isn’t hot
  • Turning their head away from someone who’s facing them
  • Closing their mouth suddenly when it had been relaxed and open
  • Keeping their mouth clamped shut rather than loose with their tongue visible
  • Showing the whites of their eyes
  • Pinning their ears back
  • Lowering their tail
  • Becoming stiff and still 

Subtle, right? Easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking. And who’s looking? Because how would anybody know what to look for without being taught? 

I started learning to read canine stress signals after my own dog bit my four year old daughter. The rescue organization had sworn this dog liked kids. He seemed to like my daughter. So how could he like her enough to lick her face but dislike her enough to bite it?

In the years since, I discovered a core truth about dog bites. They’re not personal; they’re functional. A dog who bites me isn’t saying “I don’t like you.” They’re saying “I don’t like what’s happening right now. I want to make it stop, and nothing else seems to work.”

Back to Crackers. It might help to know that Crackers had a severe injury before his adoption and was still healing when Don’s family brought him home. He’s also blind, or partially blind, on one side. How might these vulnerabilities shape his response to being handled? Does he still have pain in some spots? Is he reflexively defensive to avoid further harm? Do reaching hands seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere because of vision loss? The takeaway: Proceed with caution, handle with care.

This is actually good advice with any dog. Some dogs love being petted, can’t get enough of it, demand it constantly. Others, not so much. Maybe they like being petted in specific places, in particular ways, for a certain amount of time. (This is my dog again, getting tired of being “massaged.”) When Crackers installs himself on Don’s lap, Don reads it as an invitation to pet him. Which it probably is. But there may be a limit. And since Don is watching TV and not watching Crackers, he may overstep that limit. Maybe Crackers is getting overstimulated, or a sore spot has flared up, but Don doesn’t notice. He just keeps on petting. What’s a dog to do? Growl! Nip! Finally Don stops. 

Does Crackers still like Don? Yes. Does he like it when Don pets him? Yes, with caveats. But sometimes Don doesn’t heed them. Crackers learns that growling and nipping are the clearest way to tell Don when to stop.

How can we know a dog’s boundaries? Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Give choices, and get consent.

A dog who wants attention will ask for it. If they don’t ask, don’t impose. Give them the choice to come to you; don’t go to them. If they come over, pet them briefly. Do they relax and lean into it? Good. Give them a little more. Watch their body language for signs they’ve had enough–e.g. turning or pulling away, lip licking, yawning, clamped mouth. Pause after a minute and see if you still have “consent”–do they want more, or do they choose to move away? If they walk off, it means “Thanks, that’ll do for now.” If they want more, great. Keep petting, pausing, checking for consent and giving them the choice to stay or go.

There are so may ways to give our dogs choices and ask for consent. What are some of yours?


Not sure if it’s play or bullying? Try a consent test.

Ever wonder if dogs are playing or fighting? This video from Dog Knowledge spells it out with great footage and sensible suggestions–especially regarding CONSENT.

If two dogs are wrestling and one is aways on the top, is the one on the bottom laughing it up or begging for mercy? Do a consent test. Remove the top dog (call or lure her away) and see if the other runs right back for more, or makes a hasty getaway. What about a game of chase? It’s only a game if it’s fun for both the chaser AND the chased. Some dogs seem to feel bullied or hunted when chased; others relish it. How to tell? Give the chaser a quick timeout. Does the other dog make a beeline to safety, or act like you’re the bad guy for messing up the game?

Calling a dog out of play can be a challenge, so it requires a lot of practice and high value rewards (meatballs, hot dogs, etc.–just be sure to avoid fights over food!) An alternative is to have the dogs on harnesses and have them drag a long lightweight lead or rope so you can snag it and slow them down. Be sure to attach it to the harness, not the collar, to prevent excessive pressure on the neck.

And remember: mature, well-matched play partners regulate themselves by taking short breaks and switching between vigorous and lower intensity activities. Puppies (under 6 months) and adolescent dogs (6 months to ~2 years) may need our help to keep the lid on things. Regular interruptions (a minute or two) will restore calm and keep arousal in check.