I was watching a man with his pup the other day. The dog had scrambled up on the picnic table next to me. Now his owner wanted his attention. “Sit,” he said. Pup did nothing. So owner says, “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit.” Eventually, Pup plops his butt down. Does owner say “Good Boy!” and pat the pup? No, Owner says, “Sit. S-i-i-i-t. Sit.”
Sometimes I’ll intervene when I see a newbie making obvious training mistakes. This time I didn’t. I didn’t feel a receptive vibe, so I kept my mouth shut. But this scene came to mind after I spent some time on the phone with a friend who was dealing with long-standing relationship issues. The problem is, she communicates with her significant other the way this guy talks to his dog.
To explain what I mean, some basics of effective human to canine communication:
- Be consistent. Use the same signals for the same commands.
- Keep it simple. Don’t add any extra words or flourishes.
- Demonstrate what you mean through action. If you say, “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t, say “Sit,” once more and gently push his butt down to the floor.
- Never give a command unless you are willing to enforce it. Each time you say “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t, you have to demonstrate what it means by gently pushing his butt to the floor.
- Never escalate. Yelling at Fido or smacking him because he doesn’t do what you want will never teach Fido anything except to be afraid of you.
- Once Fido sits, shut up. Repeating the command makes him think you want something else, and he must not have understood you. If you want him to keep sitting, the command should be “Stay.”
Consistency is important. You have to follow through each and every time you make a command, or else Fido realizes that sometimes “sit” DOESN’T mean “sit” after all. So Fido will start testing by not responding when you give that command. What you do at that time determines what Fido decides “sit” actually means. I know a dog who has been taught, through his owner’s consistent actions, that “Sit! Sit! Sit! Oh, to Hell with you!” actually means “Jump on me and I’ll give you a biscuit.”
Consistency is a pain in the patootie. My first dog was a marvel of obedience, but occasionally Beez would get a wild hair. One day I walked him (off lead) down to the neighborhood convenience store, like I did every morning. “Down,” I said. He went down, like he did every morning. “Stay,” I said. I walked into the store and went to the coffee counter. I looked up, and there was Beez, sauntering by the window. I swear he looked in and grinned. I went back out and took him back to his original spot. “Down,” I said, “Stay.” I went back into the store and was pouring my coffee when I spotted Beez lazily walking by. I went back out and put him back down.
I will make this story short. It took 17 tries before I was able to buy my coffee and newspaper and get back outside to release him before he took off. It didn’t help that it was a busy morning and the line was really long. It didn’t help that everyone ELSE was highly amused. But it was important to keep at it until he followed directions. Other wise, he would know that I don’t mean what I say. Yes, it was very inconvenient that morning. But sticking to my guns meant that I had a dog neighbors offered to trade their children for. I want to add, Beez was a feral dog rescued after spending several months in Red River Gorge. If it was possible to teach him, it’s possible to teach anyone.
I have friends who are terrific with their dogs and blow it with their humans. When they try to set boundaries, they say the equivalent of “No. No. No. Oh, all right.” Maybe they add, “Just this once.” What they communicate is: “Be patient and I will give in.” They think they shouldn’t have to treat their humans like their dogs. “Humans can reason,” they say. “They already know my situation, they know I don’t want to, why do they keep asking me? Why are they making me be the bad guy?” Umm. Because you eventually say yes? Because your “nos” don’t really mean “no”?
Communicating boundaries is not the same as issuing threats. At one time I worked in residential rehab for alcoholics and drug addicts. Our clients were not only addicted, most of them came to us through the criminal justice system. We’re talking chronic professional rule breakers here. My boss was a terrific guy, and he loved helping drunks. The only thing he had a problem with was clients breaking rules. His solution was to make the penalty so big that it would act as a deterrent. “Change the rule,” he said, “If they do that, we’ll throw them out of treatment.” He figured then nobody would break that particular rule. Except that eventually every rule gets broken. When the time came, no one was willing to levy the consequence because it was too harsh. Which demonstrated to the entire house that the rules had no meaning. (I want to go on record here. I was vocally opposed to this strategy when he adopted it.) Is it any wonder this wonderful, caring man suffered high blood pressure and heart attacks?
And of course, it is always important to say what you mean. I’ll never forget my beloved grandmother repeatedly imploring a guest to stay and have another glass of tea. The woman insisted, no, she really had to go. Grandma finally closed the door behind this woman. Then she shook her head and said, “I thought she’d NEVER leave!” Seriously. Would you tell your dog to “come” if you wanted it to “stay”?
Do your loved ones take advantage of you? Do they ignore your feelings? Try talking to them the same way you should talk to your dog.