Many people tell me that it sounds like I’m talking about little kids when I write about dogs. Well, a lot of experts, including Dr. Stanley Coren, are of the opinion that a dog’s language and emotional development is that of a child 2-3 years old. Their cognitive and problem-solving “age” is probably higher, but it’s difficult to establish comparisons because after age 2-3, a child uses language to think and a dog doesn’t have those same language skills.
Temple Grandin in ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION hypothesizes that dogs (and other animals) think in pictures, like she does. That the language-center of the brain is a late-comer to the evolutionary party. That sounds logical to me. No one can deny that a being who thinks in pictures is unable to think very deeply and solve very complex problems. Not with Temple’s example and PhD to prove it!
So, I think comparing dogs and their behavior/thinking to a toddler’s is quite accurate, and a very helpful way of explaining behavior to clients and friends. Most humans have a lot of experience with kids and can use that to help them deal with the crazy things their dog throws at them. Just remember that dogs are like pre-verbal kids and a lot of the same strategies for teaching and disciplining will apply!
For example: ATTENTION-GETTING! Any parent or dog owner knows that if you answer the phone, the child or doggie who was happily playing with toys instantly needs something, anything, everything that will result in YOU paying attention to THEM! Dealing with the situation offers the same choices. 1) Hang up and pay attention to the child/dog, 2) try to continue the phone conversation while tending to whatever the child/dog needs/wants, or 3) ignoring the child/dog and the subsequent escalation of concentration-breaking strategies.
Usually, we can’t just hang up, and I don’t know about you, but my concentration levels aren’t up to doing two things at once these days. Plus, I don’t recommend pandering to a dog by giving it instant notice every time it begs, unless you want a dog that expects you to ask “how high” when s/he says “Jump!” So, that leaves ignoring. And you know what? That’s what another dog would do!
Dog’s don’t have the verbal language to say, “Mommy’s busy right now, go play nicely on your own.” Instead, an adult dog being pestered by a puppy looks up and away from the puppy. This insures that there is no eye contact, The adult dog doesn’t paw at or growl/bark at the puppy. They just IGNORE until the puppy gets the idea. I’ve also seen adult dogs do this with younger, smaller and/or subordinate dogs.
So, when a dog tries to get my attention in an inappropriate way or at an inappropriate time, the first thing I do is imitate Mama-dog. I look up and away. In “Doglish” that means “go away, you bother me!” Puppies (and older dogs, too) are programmed to understand that! Whether the dog is barking because I’m on the phone, or jumping up on me in a greeting, IGNORING is the way to go!
Just remember that “Ignoring” means “no looking, no talking, no touching!” Even, “No, no bad dog!” is ATTENTION! Even giving the dog a dirty look is ATTENTION! Even pushing the dog off your lap is ATTENTION! A dog will take negative attention to NO attention, any day of the week!
Another thing to remember and mentally prepare yourself for is that ignoring an established behavior (one that’s gotten the dog attention in the past) will provoke MORE and WORSE behavior, at first. The dog will keep trying what worked before — and try it louder and harder and longer!
My friend’s dog, Funky, stares and gives little croony growls when she wants on your lap. Well, the first time it wasn’t convenient to have her on my lap, she started in and I ignored her. Fifteen minutes later. my friend was asking if she should put Funky outside. I said she could, but Funky might take that as attention (though attention resulting in an unwanted result — not a BAD way to handle things) but that Funky should give up soon, and though she might try it again, it wouldn’t last this long. A minute or so later, Funky gave up and after 15 seconds of quiet, I called her over, asked her for a SIT and gave her a little positive attention — though NOT a place on my lap. That provoked some croony growls. As soon as my head went up and I looked away, Funky stopped! Now that was a fast-learner!
Not all dogs learn that fast, but they all do learn faster when you speak their own language. They don’t have to learn what you’re saying first and then learn to apply that to what’s happening! And all dogs will learn very quickly what behavior is acceptable when the alternative is being ignored. When it gets right down to it, whether you’re talking about dogs or kids, your ATTENTION is the most potent training tool!