Why Doesn’t My Dog Understand?

Your dog doesn’t speak English or most of the languages we know. The world is a very confusing place for them. By simplifying your speech and movements, you’ll see significant changes in your dog’s obedience skills.

The historic market in Istanbul is a chaotic whirl of color, noise, smells, and movement. You’re likely to hear Arabic, Russian, English, Italian, Mandarin, and dozens of other languages. The first time you step inside, it feels like pandemonium.

There are patterns, of course. If you slow down, you’ll see them.

What amazed me most was the vendors. They all seemed to speak at least 8 languages well enough to conduct business, and some of them claimed to speak a dozen languages.

Photo by Bree Reza

What has this got to do with your dog?

You’d be amazed how many verbal and visual signals a dog has to understand in a single household.

Your Dog Isn’t Ignoring You

Dogs respect simple, quiet communication from each other. Humans, however, are a chatty bunch. And the more excited we get, the louder and faster we talk.

There’s a fantastic description of this problem in Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book, The Other End of the Leash. Great reading, and I highly recommend it.

But for a quick example, let’s take a look at Spot. Alex has been trying to get Spot to Down, but Spot really wants to go say Hi to another dog. Alex tugs on Spot’s leash and tells Spot to Down. “Lay down! Down! Here, lay down! You can’t go over there! Down! Lay down!”

Alex couldn’t be clearer… except that Spot hears gibberish. For us, that might be like this:

Los √°rboles son ardiendo. Translated, that means that the trees are burning. But if you don’t know Spanish, you might hear:

“Blah, blah, blah, son ar, blah, blah.”

Son ar? SONAR!

You’d feel brilliant, but you’d be completely off base. Like Spot, you didn’t know which parts of the sentence were important.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

When you need your dog to do something, keep the language as simple as possible.

Say sit, not sit down. And especially, try not to say sit-sit-sit-sit!

This confuses Spot. It also teaches him that it’s okay to ignore you, because whatever it is, you’ll say it again.

And make sure that the people in your household are using the same commands. For Come, do the people in your house say Come, Here, C’mere, or something else? Is it a mix depending on the person or urgency of the situation?

The more consistent you are, the more your dog understands.

When we make it easy for them to understand, they have more opportunities to earn praise and attention. This helps reinforce their memory. It also creates positive associations and makes it more likely that they’ll cooperate in the future.

Throwing Signs, and Other Confusing Hand Signals

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

At the beginning of every training relationship, I ask the humans to demonstrate what their dog knows.

Susan confidently spread her palm out flat, and Rover flopped onto the floor. She shook her head in exasperation. “He’s supposed to sit. I swear he knows it.”

A few minutes later, her husband, John, came in from work. When it was time to demonstrate, he made a waving motion. Rover sat. Susan glowered.

This is a common situation.

Now, imagine a family of 5, where the youngest children are still mastering their own coordination. If every person in the family has a different hand gesture, Rover is going to be one very confused dog.

Photo by Michael Walk on Unsplash

It’s worth taking a couple of days to quietly observe your household. Don’t tell them you are watching. Just keep an eye on how people communicate with the dog.

How many gestures do you see for each command? Do some people (do you?) have multiple gestures for the same command? Does your dog respond more consistently to a particular gesture?

Talk with the people in your household. Try to get everyone to adopt the gesture that your dog seems to understand best.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

None of us are perfect. And when you are distracted or flustered, it’s easy to get mixed up.

A common mistake I see is that when an owner is using a hand gesture to ask their dog to sit (or down), they use the wrong signal. Sometimes they will even speak the command at the same time as they make the incorrect gesture.

The result?

If the dog has been around long enough, they usually guess correctly. But what if they are new to your household, a puppy, or they feel overwhelmed?

Some dogs default to whatever behavior they learned first (SIT!) or they may dance around. The more frazzled the person becomes, the more the dog pulls and acts out.

And remember how excited or frustrated people talk faster and louder?

We do the same thing when we talk with our hands. Pretty soon, we wind up waving our arms and squawking like a drunken heron trying to fly home. Whatever your dog decides to do, it probably won’t be what you had in mind.

The solution is simple.

Photo by Tom Pottiger on Unsplash

Many athletes, speakers, and other performers perform visualization exercises to help them prepare for an event. You can do the same thing in training. Imagine that you are standing in front of your dog, and that you want them to down.

Imagine your dog sitting in front of you. Imagine the look in their eyes while they wait to see what you will do. Feel your hand flatten, and movement in your elbow as you swing it toward the floor. Hear your own voice say, “Down.”

The more detail you put into your visualization, the easier it will be in real life.

If you plan to have your dog do multiple tasks, such as sit-down-sit-touch, using this exercise to think through each one will make your movements smoother and more confident.

Like any skill, the more you practice, the more reliable your muscle memory will become.

Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast

When you think about all the inconsistencies our dogs have to interpret, it’s amazing. They might rival those Turkish vendors.

But for a dog who is learning your language, you can make it a lot easier for them. Talk less, and make your gestures slower and more precise.

In the beginning, you’ll spend time watching yourself and the people around you to find what signals you use. You’ll see a million subtle (and some obvious) variations. Dogs are excellent observers. Your dog has probably been aware of this since you brought them home.

Choose one small habit to work on at a time, and make it as simple as you can. This is one aspect of minimalism that will make you happy… and it will make your dog happier, too.

Talk less. Move slower. Get results faster.

One thought on “Why Doesn’t My Dog Understand?

  1. That’s a good one!

    On Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 7:41 AM 42 Walks Dog Training wrote:

    > breereza posted: ” Your dog doesn’t speak English, Spanish, or most of the > languages we know. The world is a very confusing place for them. By > simplifying your speech and movements, you’ll see significant changes in > your dog’s obedience skills. The historic market in Is” >


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