Tag Archives: dog obedience

From the Couch’s Potatoes

I am a confirmed couch potato! I like nothing better than curling up on the sofa with a quilt, a book and a cup of something hot by my elbow.  Can’t say I’m exactly PROUD of preferring a life with little physical activity, but I’m definitely NOT ashamed of being an introvert who needs privacy at home to recharge my batteries!  For some reason, I always thought that recharging was best done from a reclining position on the couch!

For years as an adult I’d lived with cats, who approve and support the introvert lifestyle — as long as THEIR introvert is properly trained as warm-blooded furniture! Not that I didn’t LOVE dogs and want one, but my job was in the theatre and that means long hours away from home. Two cats can keep each other company and be happy to snuggle with their human when she finally drags in, but a dog or even two dogs — not so much!

Finally, I adopted Kita, in spite of the scheduling issues because I realized that my aging body needed motivation to pry it off the couch cushions! I couldn’t keep to a walking schedule all on my own, but would have to get moving in order to exercise my puppy! And it worked! Though I had to re-arrange schedules at the theater and come home between activities, Kita got a good 45 minutes of exercise in the morning (even in the dead of Winter when that meant setting forth  in the dark before dawn) and 45 minutes to an hour every evening. And the couch potato did, too!

At least the evening “walk” always started out as aerobic, but in my neighborhood, EVERYBODY took their dog to the park after work. It wasn’t unusual for the humans to stand around socializing and let their dogs frisk about, socializing on their own. The neighbors encouraged me to let Kita off leash so she could have fun with the other dogs and I couldn’t resist!  Yep, Kita had fun, but after she organized and lead break-away adventures in the woods a couple of times, they stopped suggesting that!  (Kita was far more independent than most 6-9 month old puppies and still doesn’t have a rock-solid recall because of that trait.  But that’s another subject.)  Still, she got a good measure of movement, and compared to the pre-Kita days, I’d added quite a bit of activity to my day!  Until Kita was over a year old, it was no problem getting her enough walks and play-dates to keep in shape.  Then we moved.

Foolishly, I thought that we’d get MORE activity in a semi-rural area. It wasn’t until we were all unpacked that I realized a couple of things — out here there are no sidewalks or streetlights.  In addition, the road we live on may be only two-lanes, but is one of the only connecting roads between two communities and a college, so I don’t feel safe walking on the shoulder even in daylight.  With the leash-laws (by township ordinance, even CATS have to be on-leash) and Kita’s Recall being iffy, I couldn’t safely bend the rules and let her romp in the wild land behind our house even if I was scrambling around with her.  We have 2/3 of an acre fenced in behind the house, but a dog doesn’t exercise herself.  And even if she did, that doesn’t exercise ME!

This is where I started to really envy those folks with high-fetch-drive dogs.  Romping and throwing ball or Frisbee with Kita would have gone a long way to keeping us both off the couch.  After a year or so of intermittent walks at parks we had to drive to.  Short walks along the same “safe” backstreet. Running around our yard which got to be a more than a bit boring without the ball-or-Frisbee component, I broke down and adopted a companion animal for Kita – Rilka.  (It’s her picture I use as my blog avatar!)

That solved the dog’s exercise requirements — for about a year.  The girls would play and chase each other around the small barn, and we’d all walk a couple of times a week, so with yard-work I was doing OK, too.  Then, as these things happen, the girls played less, and we walked less, too.  It all happened so gradually that I didn’t recognize the increasingly frequent doggie break-outs as the symptom of what they were – two still young, lively dogs weren’t getting enough exercise!

By break-outs, I mean literally and figuratively!  The girls would break out their own fun with “boredom” chewing, garbage exploration and digging inside and outside the house.  On the literal side, Rilka was an escape artist and Kita no slouch, neither.  They took many, many opportunities to slip under the chain link, or enlarge a gopher hole under the privacy fence, or punch out a screen in a window, to get out and chase furry critters all over the area. (I wanted smart dogs and they are – they thought of ways to break out faster than I could think of what they might be thinking of!)  Considering how busy the street out front is, it was fairly miraculous that they stayed safe – except for tapeworm from eating little furry creatures, scratches, burrs, and Kita blowing a knee – for nearly 4 years.  But it eventually killed Rilka who was hit by a car.

They say hind-sight is always 20-20. I now see that I let my “couch potato” inclinations take over and — not to put too fine a point on it –neglected my dogs and myself.  Even if I found our only safe walking route boring, the dogs didn’t – the smells were always new and interesting.  There was always time, and walking in the pre-light before dawn always revealed wonderful wildlife.  No, I just failed to do the duty I got a dog to force myself into in the first place.

Since then  DRAMA DOG TRAINING activities — boarding, daycare and classes – are making sure both Kita and I keep moving,  Even though she’s now, at 9 years, considered a “senior,” Kita plays more and more with the client doggies!  If we don’t have dogs that exercise each other, Kita and I take one dog at a time for walks, so we’re doing pretty good there, too!

And it’s kind of amazing that I’ve discovered even an introvert’s batteries get recharged all the better with a little physical activity!  After a good walk, I’m more creative, relaxed and refreshed that if I sat down with a book and cup of tea!  The benefits to me are great, but to my dog, they can’t even be measured. It’s my job to keep us from “couch-potato-hood” and I wish I’d lived up to my responsibilities in time so that my sweet Rilka might still be here with us.  But I can point to myself as a bad example and assure clients that exercise DOES make a huge difference in a dog’s behavior and “bad” habits as well as her health — and theirs!

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You Get What You “Pay” For

puppy and ball

(Thanks to the German Shepherd Dog Community for this cute pic!)

One subject that inevitably comes up when talking “dog” with anyone, anywhere, are those dogs that LOVE to chase a ball, stick, or Frisbee, but a) won’t bring it back, b) try to morph into TUG the instant a human lays a finger on it, c) seize the opportunity to turn FETCH into KEEP AWAY, or d) spit the object out at the human’s feet before he can take it. Actually, I’m always envious of folks with ANY of the above issues because it means their dog will at least FETCH to some degree.  Both of my GSDs, though with HIGH prey drives, preferred to chase live, furry things and seemed to think I was trying to trick them somehow with balls and Frisbees.  (You want me to do what….?)

Having lots of different dogs come to stay at DRAMA DOG TRAINING for the day or week, I’ve seen many dogs exhibiting one or more of the four issues above.  In all cases, it only took a little persuasion to convince them to play by my rules.  You see, dogs are smart!  If they can get us to play THEIR game THEIR way, then why shouldn’t they?  The pay-off for the dog, as always, is how much attention they get!  We reap the behavior we feed with the most attention – and doggie doesn’t care if we’re happy or upset as long as doggie’s getting our focus.

Consider the dog that just won’t bring the ball back.  One might think that Tucker isn’t getting to play FETCH much at all if he runs off with the ball, but who says that’s the game he wants to play?  If he runs and grabs the ball – it becomes HIS!  “Nyah, nyah!  It’s my ball and you can’t have it!” Tucker  seems to taunt as he’s dashing about the yard; a doggie grin plastered on his face!  I guarantee if you turn your back or start go in the house he’ll probably deflate like a pricked balloon.  If you don’t care he has the ball and are taking away your attention and company, most dogs will drop the toy to run after you, or bring it along (forgotten) in his mouth.  Even if Tucker DOESN’T, his fun is over because you’re not there to gloat over any more.  After a few repetitions, he’ll be looking for a game that’s more fun and FETCH might have a chance, after all!

Most dogs that instantly morph into a game of TUG have been taught to do that by their human!  We don’t MEAN to, but we do!   Joey brings the stick right back and you grab it.  Joey hasn’t been taught what “Drop it” means, so you pull on the stick trying to get it out of his mouth to throw it again.  You ARE playing FETCH, right?  Not after you’ve started TUGGING, you’re not!  That turns it into a brand new game with new rules – and you started it!  Can’t blame Joey if he joins in!  Or if ever after he thinks the two games should alternate.  HE Fetches and then YOU Tug!  That sounds fair, doesn’t it?  Not so much from our point of view!

So, when Joey tries to pull, decline to reciprocate!  You can let go of the stick, or move along with him as he TUGS.  The idea is you’re going to wait him out — until HE releases the stick.  You can wait until he drops it on his own.  As he it leaves his mouth, say, “Drop it! YES!” then pick up the stick and throw it.  If you keep hold of the stick, watch as he’s chomping to shift his grip.  When his jaws release the stick, suddenly pull it out of his mouth, saying “Out! YES!” and throw the stick.  In either case, Joey is learning a new CUE and you’re not being trapped into playing TUG!

It’s no wonder so many dogs return the Frisbee only to keep it just out of our reach.  KEEP AWAY is the game voted most-fun-to-play by 9 out of 10 dogs of all sizes, ages and breeds.  Ringo’s reactions are so much faster than ours that he gets a good doggie giggle at our fumbling attempts to grab the Frisbee.  “Sucker! You’ll never get it!”  And that’s true.  A human’s chance at winning the KEEP-AWAY game are pretty slim!

SO DON’T PLAY THAT GAME!  Instead, play FETCH with TWO objects that Ringo likes equally well.  As he’s bringing back the first one, hold up the second and waggle it enticingly.  Most dogs will drop the first without a second thought as they focus on the one in YOUR hand – that you of course THROW to keep the game of FETCH going.  Pick up the first toy as Ringo runs off, and you’ll stay in business!

I honestly used to wonder a bit at folks who thought D was a PROBLEM.  A dog that returns and spits the FETCH object out without being asked or coaxed!  Isn’t that what we WANT? But then, I encountered a high-drive Australian Shepherd!   Cooper was so intent on getting ready to go after the re-thrown ball that he would dash up, dropping the ball somewhere in my vicinity as the ran half-way out in the yard to wait for the next toss.  Stooping over to pick up a ball once or twice isn’t hard, but after 50 repetitions, it gets old.  So I refused to pick it up!

Actually, that was the final step.  The intermediate steps involved not picking up a ball that was dropped further away than the previous time.  Then I only picked up balls that were CLOSER to me, until it was consistently left at my feet.  You see, I’d only throw the ball AFTER I picked it up, so if it was too far away and I was just standing there, Cooper couldn’t stand it and would move it a little closer!  (Ha-ha!  All according to my fiendish plan! ) Finally, when Cooper was bringing the ball right to me, I’d point to the ball on the ground and say, “Gimme the ball!” and WAIT!  Cooper would get so frustrated at my stupidity that he’d pick it up and nudge my hand with it.  Grabbing it, I’d say “YES!” and throw the ball as the reward.  It only took a couple of days for Cooper to learn MY rules! That the ball got thrown again much QUICKER if he put it in my hand!

It is temporarily a bit costly in terms of time and effort to enforce OUR rules, but if we let THE DOG dictate the game, we can expect to be frustrated for the life of the dog.  The dog is out for maximum amusement and it will probably be at our expense, not its own!  The truth is that dogs will play WHATEVER “game” you play WITH them.  You’ll always get the results you’ve earned with your attention. In dog play as well as dog obedience — you get what you pay for!

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Just This Once

We humans are addicted to short-cuts. We’ll skip steps and rush through directions. I don’t like to call us lazy, but especially if we’re feeling rushed, we’ll latch on to just about any excuse to let things slide—temporarily, of course!  Giving things “a lick and a promise” as my granny used to say, we blithely assume we’ll be able to go the full distance later, tomorrow, some OTHER time.

We humans are pretty good at fooling ourselves, too!  Ever notice that tomorrow or that OTHER time, it’s even harder to make the effort and do whatever it was?  I’m not even talking about something BIG, like walking the dog.  No, it’s the little things that tend to get washed away in a flood of just-this-once!

I don’t think anyone really likes being bowled over by the dog (or dog pack) on our way outside.  There’s no reason for dogs to bowl us over because they really pick up the WAIT/OK cue at the door with amazing ease.  On high-traffic days, out of self-preservation – I make all dogs SIT, and WAIT until I get the door open and they are released with OK.  My mom thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world to see 7 or 8 bottoms hit the ground more-or-less simultaneously.  Even the first-time visiting pups get the hang of the business in just a few minutes.

So, do I make the dogs do that ALL the time?  Of course not!  I know it’s a breakdown of training!  I know making them SIT and WAIT won’t really take appreciably longer than fighting my way close enough to lean over the large jostling bodies to grab the  door handle.  I know it will be less aggravating and stressful!  I KNOW it’s safer and better and yada, yada, yada!  For some reason – call it temporary insanity – I think it’ll be easier to skip the whole WAIT business.  Even when it demonstrably takes as much time or MORE to push past the “puppies” and persuade them to move enough to let the door open.  Even as I strain to hold the door open against the onrushing wave of wolves wanting to win the “outside” race, I still think (at the time) it’ll be easier.

In my going-out-the-door example, at least the actual DANGER to anyone is relatively low.  Sure, I get jostled, but that happens outside during playtime, too.  Yes, dogs that were a bit protective of their place in the pack might get a little ornery, but I’m not tempted to skip steps when there are ornery dogs visiting.  However, I’ve seen a lot of skipping steps just-this-once that have potentially lethal consequences and leave me with sweaty palms and a pounding heartbeat!

For nearly a year, until his mom moved out of state, a lovely Basset Hound/Beagle mix came for daycare a couple of times a week, and often boarded while “mom” was away on business.  Max was a real sweetie, but he was a typical scent hound.  Let his nose point at the ground and he was off — and never looked back or even heard you calling to him.  His mom consistently – because it was easier, just from the car to the training room door – wouldn’t put his leash on.  For a while, she carried him. Well, Max was short, but no light-weight!  So soon, his mom would put him down on the ground for the last few feet, then a few more…

Well, you know what happened!  The first time he trailed a squirrel towards the road (a busy thoroughfare where cars whip by at 50 mph plus) I thought I’d have a heart attack.  We’re lucky that he heard us that time – and that the time he DIDN’T hear, he was headed off back into the shrub woodland and went slowly enough for us to catch up!  After chasing Max for 20 minutes, I determined that I would take the time to rush out with my own leash and put it on him from then on!

Obviously, not taking the MAYBE 10 seconds with a squirmy dog to clip a leash on the collar did NOT save time.  Equally obviously, clipping the leash on could very well be the only thing that would someday save Max from getting hit or lost, but his mom never did put his leash on!  And we all do this sort of thing.  I’ve done it with Kita — just going out to get in the car — even KNOWING she’s not 100% on recall if there’s any furry critters out there!

Yep!  My only explanation is temporary insanity.  It’s not like we don’t REMEMBER what happened the last time.  It’s not like we really expect things to be different the NEXT time! (And if we do, that’s more evidence of incipient lunacy!)  What is it with the human brain that it doesn’t recognize that making a LITTLE effort “just this once!” will save us time and aggravation – and perhaps tragedy – in the long run?

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They Also Serve

dog vet memorial

Happy K9 Veterans Day! There’s been a fair bit of buzz lately about our soldiers in fur. Animal Planet aired their documentary, GLORY HOUNDS, about Military Working Dogs and their handlers in mid-February. On January 1, a Rose Bowl Parade float, sponsored by Dick Van Patten’s Natural Dog Food, honored the canines who serve with our armed forces. And the Senate, led by John McCain, watered down a bill that would have changed the official status of our MWD’s from “equipment” to “canine members of the Armed Forces,” and be assured of a ticket home and an honorable retirement with medical care.

The bill was passed in the House and was also passed in the Senate, but it did not contain those three very important stipulations. MWDs are still considered equipment. According to the Senate’s version of the bill (which the President later signed into law) the military commanders have the option to send dogs home, and a COMMITTEE has been authorized to look into raising funds to take care of retired dogs, as long as no Federal Funds are used for that purpose. Nice reward for soldiers who daily risked their lives to protect us, huh?

It may be argued that dogs are only behaving as they are trained and ordered to do by their handlers, and have no conception of what they are risking. True, dogs live in the moment to a great extent – they can teach us a thing or two about that! Also true — they certainly are working in partnership with a handler. I’m sure it’s equally true that a MWD’s willingness to engage in dangerous maneuvers is motivated to a great degree by his love of and trust in his partner. Still, that doesn’t mean the dog is insensible of the danger he’s facing — especially after serving for a few months.

Come on! Dogs aren’t dumb! If they were, soldiers wouldn’t trust the dogs with their safety and lives as they do. Though dogs live in the moment, it’s been demonstrated that a dog’s mental stability depends on being able to predict what’s going to happen next, so MWDs certainly know that their jobs risk a lot of noise and danger! Even if the dog doesn’t fret about the danger as a human might, he knows the soldiers he’s patrolling with are anxious, on edge – and when they’re frightened. And, as trainers say, “emotions go right down the leash!” so what the handler feels, the dog does, too.

To me, the point isn’t that Military Working Dogs serve in exactly the same way as human soldiers. After all, they are specialists. You don’t see a human being asked to sniff out explosives, any more than you’d ask a dog to shoot a rifle. Of course dogs have specific talents which are different than those of their human comrades-in-arms! The point is that they go through intensive training, just like human soldiers. They live in primitive conditions for months and years, daily using their training in situations that put them in mortal danger. They often are killed, injured, or rendered incapable of doing their duty in the pursuit of it.

The difference is that a wounded human soldier will be flown home, cared for and given an honorable retirement. The injured canine soldier, unless his handler (on a soldier’s pay) can afford to send him home. If his handler can’t afford to adopt the dog and his medical bills, the Military Working Dog may in all likelihood be killed by his own military. Disposed of – as just another useless piece of equipment.

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Puppies Want to Please

sad puppyI have a PUPPY MANNERS class starting tonight — and I’m thrilled!  It’s always exciting and makes me very happy when folks don’t put off formal training with a young puppy. They grow up so fast and you never get back those first impressionable months.

A puppy is “pre-programmed” to eagerly accept new experiences between about 7 and 16 weeks.  That’s the age where, in the wild, the pups would first emerge from the den to meet and bond with their social unit — the pack.  After that age, a more cautious phase sets in to discourage the growing pups from wandering too far afield and bonding with members of other packs, or prey animals.  Domestic dogs have the same built-in learning periods as those in the wild.  So, our best time to teach Toby to accept people, dogs, other animals, and new places and situations is while he is still in that early formative period – less than 4 months old!

Too many times, we bring a puppy home and either because of busy schedules or fear of infection for that pup just starting vaccinations, Toby scarcely leaves home again until months have gone by.  He’s never exposed to new people, dogs or even other places – except the Vet!   And a trip to the Vet is scary!  So, it’s really no wonder that, at 6 or 8 months, Toby starts showing fear and/or aggression towards a lot of people and places his adopters really want him to like and accept.  Poor Toby was never introduced to them when it would make the best impression, so now teaching him will be much more difficult!

This is similar to language acquisition in humans.  A child’s developing brain swiftly makes new connections and assimilates words, grammar and syntax without even trying.  An adult’s brain can’t do that, and we learn language much more slowly and with a lot more effort!  There’s no going back to that more plastic brain just because we’d like to.  We’re dealing with hard-wiring.  Can’t just load up the newest software!  And neither can a “teenaged” puppy.  Toby has learned  that his home and those few people in it are his pack and territory and everyone else and all places outside that are “other” and not to be trusted.

You see, if you’re not FORMALLY training the puppy — Toby’s learning anyway!  We can’t put Toby on hold until we’ve got enough time to teach him.  Babies pick up whatever their environment presents, because their little brains are BIG sponges.  It’s not a matter of teaching Toby or not, just if we want to be in conscious control of what he’s learning or are content to leave it all to chance.

Another reason to get puppies into formal training ASAP is that a young dog is so eager to please!  Baby Toby probably drives his new family crazy following them and constantly getting underfoot –because he’s trying so hard to be noticed and loved.  This attention-seeking drive of a puppy is beyond price!  At that young age they will do ANYTHING to get our attention and approval!  And he’s probably doing a lot of very annoying things trying to get it, too!  So substitute lessons, make him EARN that attention, and the limits of Toby’s learning is the limits of our time to teach and ability to explain what we want!

Recall?  Ha!  Try getting far enough away to call Toby to you!  Praise that pup every time he wanders your way, called or not.  Never call him over for “bad” things like clipping nails or getting a bath, or punishment, and Toby will zip to your side every time you say his name!  Play recall games consistently before the pup is 4 months old and you’re forming a HABIT of returning to you.  Early habits are very hard to erase, and Toby won’t even try!

Walking on leash?  Puppies are FOLLOWERS!  Introduce Toby slowly and gently with lots of treats and praise to his collar and leash.  Instead of dragging him around when he hesitates, pretend to RUN AWAY calling his name and let Toby chase you!  Then PRAISE him when he catches up!  That’s all good leash-manners are – following the leader!

Don’t wait until your dog becomes a teenager to start training!  Just like in humans, doggie teenagers are learning to become independent and are not so intent upon following or gaining our approval.  If we’ve carefully taught Toby good habits while he was a baby, it won’t take much to keep him “in practice” as he’s growing up, or to build on those early lessons.  If we’ve put off the training, all is not lost.  Old dogs (and “teenaged” dogs) most certainly can learn new tricks!  However, Toby will never so readily, so easily, so joyfully pick up any instruction, nor work so hard to learn — just to please us.

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Ignoring Speaks Louder than Language

I know my clients, friends, and family undoubtedly get tired of hearing me advise: “IGNORE the behavior you DON’T want to see repeated and PAY ATTENTION to ANYTHING you want your dog to keep doing!”  I know I often sound like a broken record to myself!  For everyone’s sake, I’ve got to think of other ways of getting that point across because, to me, it is training in a nutshell. Everything else is just techniques and strategies to help you accomplish those two things.

As humans, we are so terribly tempted to TALK all the time in training, thinking that will help the dog learn faster. But dogs don’t automatically understand what we’re saying.  They don’t have a natural predisposition for verbal language like humans, so they’re not even listening for verbal cues.  I saw a cartoon once with a lady talking to her dog.  The “speaking” balloon coming from her mouth said something like, “You know better than that, Fido, but you just had to do it anyway!”  The “thinking” balloon coming from the dog’s head looked like this – “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah FIDO! blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”  you get the point.

Dogs watch what we DO far more than listen to what we SAY. It takes many, many, many repetitions for most dogs to correctly connect the sounds coming out of our mouths with specific actions or situations.  They pay a little more attention to tone of voice, but it still doesn’t help them as much as we think it should.  My mentor, Humane Society of West Michigan’s behaviorist Namiko Ota-Noveskey, says that she can tell when she’s being an effective trainer because she’s not saying much!   Then, she knows she’s focusing on the dog’s body language and using her own to teach the dog!

Something happened in my backyard today that really illustrates how effective IGNORING a dog can be!  My GSD mix, Kita, is 9 years old and never was one to play a lot even in her youth.  A new Daycare client is a Black Lab/St. Bernard mix named Sheba.  She’s only 9 months old and already as big as Kita.  Sheba also LOVES to play and spends HOURS trying to persuade Kita to join her.  Sometimes Kita does – actually to my surprise!  However, today wasn’t one of those days.

Sheba tried every ploy in the book!  Huge play-bows right in front of Kita, front legs spread wide and chest on the ground, rear and tail wiggling madly.  Then, Sheba tried lying down head between paws to give Kita the ole sad-puppy dog eyes with some begging-whines!  After that didn’t work, came the bouncing all around from every angle in play-bows — barking all the while.  Through all that Kita continued sniffing the ground and the air without so much as a glance in Sheba’s direction.  So, Sheba started dashing right up to Kita, nose to nose and then would run away in the “butt on fire” gait of a dog that’s expecting to be chased.  Kita looked in the other direction.  Now being a bit of a distance away, Sheba charged, in huge gallumphing strides directly at Kita looking for all the world as if she was going to bowl her over.  Kita calmly lifted her nose a bit and gazed off at the horizon.  As a last-ditch effort, Sheba tried some deliberately provocative actions:  nudging Kita’s nose and face repeatedly, then “T-ing” (putting her head over Kita’s back.)  Kita remained unimpressed.  Sheba at last acknowledged defeat and looked for a stick to chew.

Kita never once lost her cool.  She stood her ground, but never made eye contact.  She never wrinkled a lip or made a vocalization, even when the “puppy” was in her face and being a bit of a brat!  Now, T-ing is a form of jockeying for dominance, and Kita does not take kindly to being so challenged.  Sheba clearly was trying that to get ANY reaction out of Kita – even a negative one!  I think Kita knew just what the puppy was doing and wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction – the ATTENTION!

Sheba didn’t give up easily!  Her behavior got worse before it got better!  Kita didn’t have human language skills to help her, but she didn’t even use a dog’s limited repertoire of vocalizations to “say” anything.  She didn’t even need to take any direct action to get HER point across to Sheba!  I’m not too proud to learn a lesson from my dog!  She’s not the most patient animal I’ve ever met, and probably wouldn’t have taken all that from an adult dog.  But Kita today gave me a textbook example of how to teach a puppy some manners!

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Saying, “Boo!” to a Dog

I remember as a child, once walking by a tied-out dog. My mother was with me; we were at a campground, as I recall.   I knew enough not to approach a tied dog, even calm and lying down as this one was, without its owner present. However, I didn’t want to just ignore him!  It seemed rude as he was watching us in a hopeful way, so I said something like, “Hey there, Boo!” and the dog thumped his tail on the ground and grinned at me, dipping his ears and looking rather goofily happy. I remember asking my mother why dogs always seemed to like being called “Boo!”  Poor woman. I probably asked crazy things like this all the time. She did her best and came up with, ” Because it sounds friendly!”

Looking back, I think she was right.  But I don’t think it was the name, “Boo” alone that sounded friendly to the dog.  I’m sure (because I still call dogs, “Boo” today along with “Sweetness” and “Babycakes”) that I used a form of exaggerated speech that is closely related to baby-talk.  Nowadays I believe it’s called Motherese or Child-directed Speech.

It has been noted by many psychologists that humans (especially women) speak to animals (especially pet dogs) in almost exactly the same way as they would speak to a small child.  It seems to be an instinctive response.  I have never had children of my own, never baby-sat very small kids, and have few friends or relatives within easy-visiting distance who had infants for me to “practice” on.  Yet, I invariably use this special form of speech to all dogs, cats, and to a lesser extent the other domestic animals, and wild creatures I encounter around my home and on walks.

This isn’t necessarily the stereotypical baby-talk where words are distorted almost beyond recognition — “Did oo hurt ooself, widdle beebee, Did oo?”  But there are some shared characteristics:  higher pitch, drawn out sounds, musical cadence, rhythmical delivery and repetition.  Think about the last time you asked your dog if she wanted to go for a walk.  I bet it sounded something like this — “Puppy wanna go for a walk?  Wanna go?  Wanna walk?”  Probably the “walk” and “go” as final words were drawn-out and had an upward swooping pitch.  And I bet your dog got very excited and happy!

Well, you, say.  That’s because Fifi understands those words.  Yep!  I believe it!  And she understands the words precisely because the delivery was designed to help others acquire language!  Of course it was evolutionarily designed to teach our own children, but when we adopted dogs into the family, they benefited from the same speech patterns that were already well-honed by thousands, if not millions of years of mothers talking to their babies.

I’m not trying to be sexist here!  A lot of guys use this sort of language instinctively, too – especially if they’ve been the caretaker of small children.  However, men seem to have a harder time with applying it to a dog.  A lot of my clients just can’t wrap their minds around the need to talk baby-talk to their puppy (or adult dog!)  Even if you’re not trying to teach the dog word recognition, they just RESPOND better to that form of talking!  If you want to get a dog excited, encourage it to come to you, or make him work harder – speak in baby-talk.  Most dogs go all soft and goofy when they hear it and will do anything for you!

Some guys seem embarrassed by it all.  I point to K9 cops and Military Working Dog handlers.  Those big tough cops and soldiers invariably praise their dogs in this very same, high-pitched, sing-song, silly way.  And the big tough police and military dogs eat it up with a spoon!  They get the very same happy grin on their faces that the tied-out dog so long ago did for me.  It is plain that this silly-talk is the reward they work so very hard for and risk their lives to receive.  Saying “Boo!” to a dog is exactly what they want from us!

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