Dr. Nichol’s Blog – We Speak – Dogs Watch

dog listening to commands

They’re good listeners too

Why do dogs follow commands like sit and stay if they don’t understand English? When we speak are they processing the words we’re saying or the tone we’re using? The answer to these questions from a middle schooler with a science project is that pet dogs can learn to recognize our words, how we say them, and a whole lot more.

Dogs are our best friends and snuggle bunnies but they are not little people in furry suits. They are members of a different species who don’t miss anything. They respond to our words, our tone of voice, our movements – even subtle shifts in our posture that we might not notice. They take it all in. Of course we speak human. Dogs don’t understand everything. In fact they misinterpret some of our histrionics because their brains are programmed to speak and understand dog.

Despite the language barrier most dogs adapt and go along with their people. This works for them because they believe that we control their access to all resources. They’re operant learners (we are too), meaning that what gets rewarded gets repeated. If they engage in a behavior we like – and we cough-up the reward – everybody wins. But if our dogs screw up and do something we don’t like – and we consistently ignore their antics – they’ll usually abandon that behavior and try something else to see it earns a reward. With time and practice most trial-and-error learners eventually figure out how to survive. Who among us would keep going to a job without a paycheck?

The disconnect for many dogs and their people comes from human attempts to communicate but the canine creature gets it wrong. More than our words they can misinterpret our actions and our body signaling. The confusion that follows is no fun for anybody. Since you and I are smarter than our dogs (no, really, if only a little) we carry the responsibility of leadership. Normal dogs catch on pretty quickly. But those who react badly because of a fear or anxiety disorder need tailored behavior modification to bring out their best. Providing the right management can be a lot of work.

You may actually know more about canine leadership than you realize; the fundamentals of learning theory apply to all species. When you tell your dog to “Sit”, gently push his rear end down, and then pet him, tell him he’s good, and give him a treat, he learns to associate the word sit with earning a reinforcer for the action. With repetition he figures out how he can get what he wants by following orders. Because of the language barrier your canine subordinate will need time and repetition to catch on. Kindness and consistency will be essential in setting him up to be happy and confident in his work.

How many times have you wished you’d had a boss or a parent like that? Someone who gave you time, who was patient with your mistakes? I don’t know anybody who has sailed through life without a burr under their saddle – in fact several of them. I know how it goes; I had a rough start to my life. But our history of harsh treatment can teach us the mistakes to avoid. We can learn to share kindness instead.

Our pets give us opportunities to hone our leadership skills every day. No matter how badly we get it wrong they never grow tired of us and they’ll never leave. When we make mistakes they forgive and give us a second chance. A dog can be a mighty good teacher. Their patience with our failings can help us forgive ourselves and do it better the next time. As we improve we can share our empathy, kindness, and patience with more than our dogs; we can set an example for the people around us too.

We humans have a lot in common with our dogs. Like us, they are members of a highly social species that pulls together as a community for mutual benefit. There are similarities in our social structures but there are differences too. Unlike us, dogs communicate among themselves almost continuously, nearly always with very subtle body language cues. If you’re not trained to recognize their signals you’ll miss almost all of them.

That seemingly minor distinction has huge implications. Our dogs watch us, their human leaders, more than we realize. They miss nothing including our unconscious shifts in posture, our tone of voice, even changes in our body scent. These clues relate to our emotional state of the moment. A dog who is nervous or afraid may overreact to its person’s body signaling. It can be hard to make sense of anxiety because it’s an illogical, unfounded worry that something catastrophic may happen any minute! Aaarrrgghh!

The essential problem for anybody with an anxiety problem (like me) is that about 95% of the stuff we worry about will never happen. But a human leader with empathy, who “gets it”, can make a very big difference by countering the nervousness, about what might go wrong, with predictability. All dogs, including the anxious wrecks, are hard-wired to connect one event with the one that follows. Those with the heebie jeebies adapt better to a life that is structured and predictable.

Have you ever wondered why some dogs are so pesky for attention? Beauregard was a young golden retriever belonging to Mickey and Bill. Well into their 70s these good folks were sometimes in over their heads with this wild and crazy guy. If he heard a noise outside he would immediately run to them and nudge and paw for attention. When a visitor came in the house Beau got way out-of-control, barking and jumping on the guest.

Mickey and Bill reacted to Beauregard’s bad behavior the way most people would, by firmly reprimanding their wayward dog. When he jumped up they pushed him off and sprayed him with water. To startle him out of his nefarious mindset they even threw a can with pebbles in it. He got worse.

I see a whole lot of dogs in my practice who overreact because they’re anxious, hypervigilant, often waiting for the other shoe to fall. They really need to be treated like dogs; not like little people in furry suits. Oh, sure, we love them that way – and that’s good for all of us. But an easily freaked-out dog like Beauregard desperately needs a consistent structure that fits his canine brain. When he gets wiggy he can’t decipher his person’s human-specific corrections. He needs simple canine leadership.

In order to succeed with Beauregard Mickey and Bill needed to wrap their brains around an essential concept: Unlike a human subordinate a dog regards any response from its leader as a reinforcer. Dogs believe that they will only get attention that they’ve earned; nothing from their person is gratis. They regard every little thing they get from us (a kind word, a pet on the head – everything) as a reinforcer for their behavior and their emotional state of the moment. I told these folks that when Beauregard did the wrong thing he was to be completely ignored. When he started to calm himself even a little they were to reinforce him with a quiet kind word. A big part of their job was to catch him doing something right as often as possible.

The quality and tone of the reinforcement Beauregard earned would be essential to shifting his emotional state. Dogs follow their leaders’ example. If Mickey and Bill wanted a calm dog they needed to demonstrate calm.

The lesson for Beauregard was that his relaxed behavior would consistently earn the attention he needed but pushy, demanding, jumping up, nudging, and body slamming resulted in absolutely nothing. Desirable behavior earned a reinforcer; undesirable behavior would be completely ignored. I told Beau’s people to repeat this lesson hundreds of times.

With repetition and consistency Beauregard caught on. He now gets more attention than ever; he earns it by doing what his leaders want. Their kindness has provided him a reliable, more peaceful life.

Mikey and Bill had a question that was just burning a hole in their collective brain: How in the world can you ignore a big fuzzy brute who is nearly knocking you over? I was so glad they asked. I told them to leave a 6 foot or longer leash attached to Beauregard’s collar at all times when they were inside with him. We call it a drag line because the dog drags it around the house. The beauty of a drag line is that if a person sees behaviors they don’t want they can manage their dog while completely ignoring. That’s because a leash means nothing to a dog if the person on the other end is a highly skilled, total ignorer.

If your dog is a nutball, or maybe he’s prone to fear or aggression, you can safely remove him and put him elsewhere while completely ignoring. At the first hint of a behavior you don’t want you must immediately believe, down to the bottom of your brain, that there is no dog. Then pick up the drag line and march to a different room.

Does that sound silly or impossible? Remember that our dogs miss nothing. Of the 100 billion active neurons in your brain, if your dog’s name is on just one of them, because you’re not completely ignoring, you will display a however-subtle shift in posture that even people who have known you the best would never notice. But your dog? Well, she’s a dog. She misses nothing about you. She’ll be sure that you deliberately transmitted that signal to reinforce her behavior of the moment, good or bad. That’s because she believes that you are the smartest canine leader in the world and that you know exactly how to communicate. If you want your dog to succeed you must learn to become a world class, Olympic level ignorer. Practice this skill until you are so good that you are not even ignoring because, when there is bad behavior, there is nobody to be ignored.

If you had a dog at the moment of undesirable behavior (which, of course you don’t because you get all 10s in the Olympic ignoring competition) he would check for a response and get absolutely nothing. He would say to himself, “You knucklehead! You’ve screwed up AGAIN! Quit that ridiculous behavior so your benevolent dictator of a person will catch you being calm (doing something right) and bestow upon you the great privilege of an interaction.” Which, of course, you will gladly confer. You love your dog and setting him up to succeed is your greatest joy in life. You will wait and watch for opportunities to reinforce what you want. The rest of the foolishness gets nothing.

So, when Beauregard demanded an interaction from his highly skilled canine leaders, Mickey and Bill, there was no such thing as a dog. But there was a drag line (leash) lying on the floor. These caring people would simply step on it, pick it up, and march with purpose to another room. If they felt some action on the other end of the drag line as they marched, well it couldn’t be a dog. There was no such thing in that moment so it must be a poltergeist. Reaching the predesigned time-out room, they dropped the drag line on the floor and closed the door. For dogs we call this banishment. Time-out works well on kids too.

And last, but not least, repeat hundreds of times.