Imagine being in an unfamiliar country where you don’t speak the language or know the rules and customs. Sounds a bit like being a dog in a human world, right? Truthfully, dogs are incredibly skilled at understanding humans. Far better than people are at speaking canine. Even still, from misusing your dog’s name to mixing up cues, many of your words and actions are potentially confusing. Read on to learn how you may be perplexing your pet.
1. Mixed Messages
Dogs can learn to recognize familiar words and phrases. In fact, Chaser the Border Collie knew over 1,000 words. But that’s different from understanding language. For example, English has many words that mean the same thing, such as leap, jump, and hop. You might be able to use them interchangeably, but your dog can’t. For example, if you’re teaching them to jump over a hurdle in agility, choose one word as your cue and stick with it. Using multiple cues for the same behavior will only confuse your dog and slow the learning process.
It’s equally confusing if you use the same cue for multiple behaviors. For instance, if you ask your dog to lie on the floor by saying “down,” you can’t also use “down” to mean “get off the couch.” That’s especially bewildering if your dog is already lying on the furniture. Instead, choose a single and unique cue for each behavior then use it reliably. Get everybody else in the family on board so your dog gets consistent communication instead of mixed messages.
2. Inconsistent Rules
Everybody breaks the rules now and then, like cheating on a diet. But dogs like routine and are easily confused when expectations are inconsistent. For example, if you want to stop your dog from jumping up on people, you can never let them jump. If you allow it when you’re wearing jeans but not when you’re in your work clothes, your dog will never grasp the distinction. It’s also stressful and unfair because your dog will never know when their actions are welcome and when they’re not. To eliminate any confusion, set boundaries and be sure everybody in the house sticks to them.
3. Mishandled Names
Although dogs may have self-awareness, it’s unlikely they think of their name as part of their identity. A dog’s name really means “my human’s focus is directed at me.” It’s an attention cue that tells your dog your next words are for them. If you overuse your dog’s name, you risk it becoming meaningless to your dog – just another bit of background human chatter. And if you use your dog’s name for scolding or other adverse events like nail trims, your dog will form a negative association with the word. Rather than perking up when they hear their name, they will slink away and hide.
You should also avoid names that sound too much like words you use as cues. Sid sounds too much like sit, for instance. Recent research looked at word processing in dogs and found that although dogs can distinguish nonsense words from cues, when it comes to similar sounding words, dogs are easily confused. So, pick a distinct name, teach your dog to associate it with rewards and positive experiences, then only use it when you want your dog’s attention.
4. Yelling and Punishment
Remember that dogs don’t speak human languages. Saying “bad dog” or lecturing them about why they shouldn’t chew sneakers won’t teach them a thing. It’s like trying to reason with an infant. They just don’t get it. And if you yell, you’ll only add to the uncertainty. Yelling tells your dog you’re worked up, but they don’t know why. Shouting can also frighten your dog, eroding your bond and creating anxiety. Now the next time your dog wants to chew your sneaker, they’ll slink off to do it in private.
In addition, many of the dog behaviors people consider a problem are just dogs being dogs. Dogs have no idea why they shouldn’t dig in your garden or drink out of the toilet, so punishing them is incredibly confusing. It’s far more effective to redirect your dog to more acceptable behaviors and teach them what you want them to do instead. Then when they perform those alternative actions, use positive reinforcement to ensure they choose to do them again in the future.
5. Late Reactions
If you catch your dog doing unwelcome behaviors like chewing on the furniture, you need to stop them and redirect them to something more appropriate. But what if you don’t catch them in the act? Scolding a dog after the fact is confusing and teaches them nothing about what they did earlier. Dogs live in the moment. Chastising a puppy for a potty accident that happened even a minute ago, is pointless and harmful. The only thing they’ll learn is how unpredictable you can be. Instead, clean up the accident and watch more carefully next time.
6. Unpleasant Consequences
Dogs associate behaviors with their consequences. If sitting gets them a treat, they will feel good about sitting. And the reverse is true. If you ask your dog to come and then give them a bath or take them to the vet, they will be far less likely to come in the future. Your recall cue should always be followed with something wonderful or you risk your dog running the other way. The same is true for your other cues too. For example, if you use the drop it cue to ask your dog to drop something, once you take that item away, you should replace it with something at least as valuable or your dog won’t want to give it up next time.
Although dogs want to please their people, they still have their own selfish interests influencing their choices. Don’t expect your dog to do as you ask just because you said so. Make it worth your dog’s while to listen and obey. Create positive consequences for the behavior you want repeated. A dog who has consistent cues, established rules, and positive training will be far less confused by what you want and far happier to give it to you.