The Language of Learning: How To Effectively Communicate With Your Dog

behavior trainingDogs Don’t Understand Any Human Language

By Stefani Fortney, ABCDT  This is a fact that we forget often. We speak to our dogs all the time. It’s a great thing about having a dog—they listen to us without passing judgement. The problem is that we talk so much that our spoken language can become meaningless to our dogs. They tune us out, then when we want them to listen to us, we get upset when they don’t respond.

Imagine that you’re sitting in a room full of people speaking a language you don’t understand. They’re deep in conversation but, since you have no idea what they’re saying, you decide to wander to the next room and find a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly, one of the people speaks directly to you in a commanding tone. You stare at him, with no idea what he may want. You smile, shrug, and sit back down. He then speaks to you again—more slowly and with a very firm tone. You have no idea what he wants. You try handing him a drink. He frowns and repeats the same phrase again. This can go on all day. You don’t speak the same language, so no actual communication is taking place.

We have to think of our dogs as students of English as a second language. Your dog’s primary, native language is very different from our spoken language. Dogs use all their senses and their entire bodies to communicate and learn. In this post, I want to share some tips to help you teach your dog the most important points of spoken language.

  1. Show, then tell.

Before you use words to tell your dog what you want, use treats to guide him into the body position that corresponds to your command. For example: by using a food lure to shape your dog into the “sit” position, then reinforcing that position immediately with the food reward, he learns that sitting is something you like. Once he understands that, you add the word “sit.” By teaching the action first, then the language that describes it, we take advantage of the dog’s natural mode of learning.

  1. Be specific.

Don’t expect your dog to pick a cue or command word out of a string of other words. Dogs don’t understand sentences. Any words that they don’t know become distracting. Teach your dog specific cues (“sit,” “leave it,” “stay,” etc.) and keep it simple.

  1. Reward, reward, reward.

When teaching your dog new cues or commands, you can’t give too many rewards. Keep pea-sized treats in sandwich baggies throughout your house so that you can reward your dog for getting it right. Every time.

To learn more about teaching your dog to understand our language, you might want to sign up for an obedience class or private instruction. At Guthrie Pet Hospital, we offer positive reinforcement training to enrich your relationship with your dog. Call us at 282-8796 to learn more about training opportunities or to enroll!

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