You Talk Too Much

Have you ever witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of a tourist attempting to communicate with someone who does not speak his language by talking VE-RY LOUD-LY and VE-RY SLOW-LY? It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone. The speaker gets frustrated because the listener still doesn’t understand, while the listener now thinks that the speaker is kind of a jerk. Watching people talk to their dogs frequently reminds me of such scenes. We talk and talk and talk. Our poor dogs do their best to figure out what we’re trying to say, and often succeed in spite of us. When they fail to get the message, however, we tend to blame the dogs rather than our own foolish insistence on attempting to communicate in a manner that they cannot understand. This leads to all sorts of trouble for dogs.

Why do we do this to our dogs? Most of us have a clear intellectual understanding of the fact that dogs don’t have spoken language. If we stop to think about it, we know that expecting a dog to understand a new word just because we’ve said it over and over is just plain silly, but we do it anyway. No matter how many times a dog ignores us yelling “Rover. Leave it! Leave it! No! No! #”&”$* No! Leave it!,” we tend to react the same way every time. Even with a trainer literally looking right over their shoulders reminding them to say “leave-it” only once and to then physically enforce the command, many of our beginning students just stand still and yell at their dogs.

This can be very frustrating for trainers. It can seem like disrespect for the trainer’s advice, stubbornness, or even being mean to the dog. I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that spoken language plays such a fundamental role in how we experience and interpret the world that we tend to take it for granted. Like the air that we breathe, we are so dependent on it in some contexts that we don’t even notice it. When it fails us, we don’t stop to ask why. We simply escalate our behavior, using more words or louder words. Something deep inside our human psyches equates language with action. Without even thinking about it, we know deep in our bones that repeatedly shouting at a dog who appears oblivious to our very existence will work if we keep at it long enough. It takes practice to override that unconscious conviction, learn to notice our mistakes, and master alternative responses.

Learning to communicate with dogs makes acquiring a new human language look easy. Dogs have a beautiful rich “language” of their own, but it primarily involves visual signals. Learning it means relying on our eyes instead of our ears and our physical bodies instead of our voices. That means learning to override some of our most basic impulses about how to communicate with members of our social group.

If I was going to create a total-immersion Berlitz academy for learning to speak dog, the first think that I would do is ban students from speaking to their dogs for at least a week. I tried to do this myself many years ago. I probably got the idea from a book, article, or seminar; but I don’t remember whose. I failed to make it a week, but I found the attempt enormously rewarding. Spending true quiet time with my dogs helped me learn both to pay more attention to their body language and to use my own body and face to communicate with them without needing to stop and think about what I was doing.

I recommend spending more silent time with dogs to anyone who wants to become a more fluent speaker of Dog. Books and videos can also set you off on the right track. They’ll teach you the basic grammar and what to watch for, but it’s up to you to learn to use it fluently. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell (book)

Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff (book)

Dog Talk - Understanding Canine Body Language and Communication by Donna Duford (seminar video)

On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas (book and video)

The Language of Dogs... by Sarah Kalnajs (videos)

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