As it’s ringing, I pick up the phone almost mindlessly only to hear a female voice speaking at 1,000 miles an hour with little room for intervention on my part. I try to interject now that I realize this is a telemarketing type of call by saying that I am not interested in this conversation as I ask her to not call again. “The voice” just keeps talking and at this point, I am wondering if it is a robot or a “real” person who has been coached through this process of selling while being massively annoying.
I give up trying to be polite and reasonable and just hang up the phone. For some reason, this experience draws me to think as to how many times during the day we do this to our dogs. No. I am not talking about the many delightful “conversations” one can have with a dog.
Just last night I had one of these conversations with Rio as she approached me while reading and looking for some affection. Call me crazy, but I wanted to know how her day had been. I listed for her the fun activities of that day as I petted her gently wanting, of course, some sort of verbal response in telling me that she had fun doing such and such; but instead, she just made herself into a little ball and lied down on the remaining area of the sofa that my body was not occupying. I was now satisfied with our “conversation” and returned to my book.
But what does talking AT your dog looks like? Unfortunately for our dogs- who tend much more to our every movement and body language, our verbal speech is not something they often understand. Talking at our dogs takes place when the pet parent assumes the dog understands verbal language or when there is the assumption that the dog has actually learned what we called the “verbal” cue. Of course, dogs can learn the meaning of our words – or at least some of them as we teach them what they mean in a way the dog can understand. But the problem lies that many times there is the assumption or even worse, the expectation that our dogs, who are indeed not only from another “country” but another species, should understand our constant babbles and act accordingly.
I’ll give you an example of when I have a talk AT my dogs. I have trained my dogs that when I say, “stop” they will stop moving. I have also taught them that “enough” means stop barking, whining because you want to eat, or harassing me because you want the ball thrown for the 5,000th time this morning. From my perspective, stop and enough are somewhat synonyms as to vacating of activity; but from the canine perspective, these two cues are NOT interchangeable.
It might sound like I am splitting hairs here, but believe me, I am not. When we understand that our dogs are again a different species we can appreciate that we must try and accommodate their learning abilities.
Another important advantage of our care in using exact phrases or words that our dogs have truly learned – and not just gotten right because of chance is that we will be able to better direct our dogs to what we want them or need them to do.
I am all for mindfulness because mindfulness not only means that I need to slow down enough to notice something, but also because slowing down implies that I consider the other I am interacting with in this case, my dog.
Being mindful of how we talk to our dogs will reap benefits for both parties. Here is another example of talking AT our dogs and it has to do with the tone of voice. We truly do not need to yell at our dogs, they are fine at hearing. Yelling at them can really impact them emotionally. Once again, by being mindful of the tone of voice we use we can pretty much teach a dog to pay attention to our whispers. And speaking about the tone of voice. In relating fully to our dogs, we can also make use of the inflection of our voice to communicate with them more clearly. High-pitched tones encourage mobility and action; deeper tones encourage the opposite – a more quiet effort.
I am oversimplifying here because our tone is also context-specific. There is one specific tone modality that I wish my clients would learn to use with their dogs. It is called the “jolly-routine”. The jolly routine implies that our matter-of-fact and happy tone of voice, signals to a less than confident dog that there is no need to worry. This works wonders when dogs meet one another. If there is a potential for this meeting to go awry, pet parents can help their dogs relax by they themselves being relaxed in how they use their voices. Good trainers know this and they can turn on the “happy” voice even if inside they are feeling less than joyful. There is, of course, an added bonus for this happy talk and that is that it might even convince you that everything is indeed all right.
I encourage you to talk more to your dog instead of talking AT your dog. What’s more, when wanting your dog to do something, think critically if you are being as clear as possible in communicating with your pal. You too will reap the benefits (at least from my perspective) of being more present when acknowledging your dog’s learning bias.