I can’t count them number of times I have reminded my clients (and myself) that dogs don’t, in fact, speak English. They don’t have any idea what most of the sounds that come out of our mouths mean. While we all know that when we stop and think about it, there are still so many situations where our natural inclination to use speech to communicate to our dogs must be really confusing to them.
- Saying a verbal cue to a dog before he has been taught the behavior. Just looking at an untrained dog and saying “sit” or “down” is pretty pointless. You might was well say “apple” and hope your dog knows what to do. The word itself doesn’t help your dog know what to do because it has no inherent meaning to him. We first need to show the dog what to do, and then we can teach the dog that the behavior goes with the cue word “sit.”
- Asking for different behaviors with the same word. For example, sometimes an owner will say “down” to mean lay down, sometimes “stop jumping on that person”, sometimes “get off the couch”. How are our dogs supposed to learn what we expect them to do when they hear that cue word when we use it in so many contexts?
- Asking for the same behavior with different words. How many of us will have heard someone say this to his or her dog: “Down….down… dddooowwwwnnn…. lay down…. can you please lay down? …. Go down… Lay….” It’s a perfectly natural human response when someone doesn’t respond to you to restate the request in different words, but it’s asking a lot of our dogs to generalize to this extent. Does your dog really know that “Come”, “Come Here”, “Get over Here” and “C’mere” are all the same things? I remind clients (ad nauseum, some might say) to pick one verbal cue for a behavior and say it only one time. After saying it once, simply wait and give the dog some time to figure out what to do.
All in all, I think dogs are pretty forgiving of our sloppiness with language.
Despite all of the confusing things we say, they still manage to figure out what we mean most of the time. And the rapt attention they give us when we talk to them, even though they have no clue what we’re saying is one of dogs’ most endearing qualities.
Do you find yourself doing this with your dog? Please share your story.