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Communicating with our dogs

In the previous four articles about Rio, the most important part that was missing was my watching how the owners and Rio communicated with each other. Only after observing this interaction was it possible to be certain as to why there was a problem. Therefore, in many ways I have to try to translate as to what is happening and then explain why in a logical way so those owners can understand. Only by understanding and accepting will they continue with any correctional methods that I suggest. If they do not understand, then it is all the more likely they will not follow the methods and so the problem will not go away.

The question that would come to mind is why do humans accept or find my translation logical. Simply translating one language into another, how would anyone know if my translating words of German into English are correct? They just have to trust me and logic does not come into it. Yet translating what a dog is trying to communicate to humans, they find logical. They are not taking what I say on trust. Why is this?

Many years ago as I became more interested in working with dogs, I soon learnt that in order to achieve any success in competitions I needed to understand what dogs were thinking, why they were thinking it, in order to improve my training methods.

The next thing I needed to understand was how humans think when communicating with their dogs. It was here that I realised why we have so much trouble when things go wrong. Human thinking is more complicated compared to the simple way dogs think and so most problems occur because we assume dogs think like us, when they do not.

When I was on the radio the other day, we were talking about dogs frightened by thunderstorms. One of the most important points I could make was to ask owners not to comfort their dogs as if they were comforting a child. Humans will quite naturally be anxious for their dogs when they see them in such distress during a thunderstorm. Cuddling the dog seems so natural for us but, from a dog’s point of view, they do not cuddle each other so it assumes that the owner is anxious of the storm as well. This then is only reinforcing its fear. The more the owners try to help with this method the worse the dog becomes. Therefore told to play games and be happy in front of their dogs or offer treats is not a normal human reaction, but they see this as logical when explained to them. Again, why is this?

The reason is that humans do understand a lot of dog’s body language but consciously try to read human responses into what they are looking at. It is looking at our dog that is the most important method of communication and yet often we are not even consciously aware we are doing it.

As I began to learn more about human communication skills, I soon learnt that dogs read our body language out of necessity. Verbal language, other than tone of voice, has no meaning to them other than different sounds to certain commands. In addition, I learned that when speaking a command, dogs primarily read cues from our body language.

If you wish to make a test, try making your dog sit with only a verbal command. Do not move your body at all or make eye-to-eye contact with your dog. In most cases, the dog will not respond because it does not have the body cue. If you are patient, you can test to see which body movement you do that the dog is reading. Often it is lifting your hand with a pointed finger, as you would say to a child telling it to sit on a chair.

Not only that, our human body language is similar whether you are German, English, or Romanian. I have dogs taught to sit or down in Spanish and German, yet I am commanding them in English. The dogs obey because my body language is so similar to the owners. My use of English commands is an accident, but my body language is semi-consciously in control of the dog and so it still responds.
If you found yourself in a foreign country, where no one speaks English, would you still be able to communicate: of course you will. If this happened, we then consciously rely on our body language. For example up or down or left and right will always remain the same.

Here in Spain we come across this all the time. If we only have a smattering of the Spanish language, when we run out of words, we find we have to use our body language to fill in some of the gaps.

Though humans have verbal language that changes from country to country, body language remains much the same. With our dogs, their verbal and body language does not change at all. The only problem is that humans require dogs not to use their verbal language of barks whines etc. This is because we find it not only annoying for us but for our neighbours.

Some years ago, animal scientists published a book translating the meaning of all the body languages and verbal sounds that dogs and wolves make when communicating with one another. The odd thing is that there are not a lot of surprises because we have always been able to read a lot of dog’s body language in a semi-conscious way.

Unlike when we translate the name of something from one language into another, we would simply learn and memorise it to use again later. Reading the signs for dogs translated into a meaning we see it and willingly accept it because it looks and feels logical. The reason for this is we already know this; it is instinctive. If it were not, we would have found it far more difficult to train our best companion.

If you think back to all your experiences with your dogs, you recognise a dog’s display of play bow or a happy dog, even an aggressive dog without ever reading this book. No one ever told you about play bow, you know it even if you did not know the name. Not only that, people who do not like dogs or have never had a dog can also read them reasonably well. This therefore has to mean we inherit this knowledge even if we do not know it all.

I find many people when they have a problem with their dog, often have a gut feeling what it is their dog is saying. Often they ignore this preferring instead to assume a human response. It is for this reason why things often go wrong.

It is so important that communication with our dog we must remember to think simply in the same way as our dogs. In the thirteen thousand years that we have domesticated them, we have advanced so much, whilst our dogs have only changed into the many shapes and sizes that we have today, but they have changed little from their wolf ancestors. Because both dogs and humans inherit their body language, it remains reasonably constant. Knowing this we can all use it to our mutual advantage in our training and correctional work with our dogs.


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