How to Talk to Your Dog

a black lab dog resting his head on a woman's leg while she pets him with one hand and also has a laptop in her lap with crossed legs on the couch

Keep it simple. English is a foreign language to your dog. Here are a five rules to help bridge the communication gap. 

Rule #1: Over Use of Verbal Cues

We try to use verbal cues a lot when our dogs are in emotionally charged situations (like when they are barking, jumping). This is not effective because your dog might be too worked up to think and connect with you effectively in that scenario. The short-term solution is to use body language or create more space in order to promote calmer behavior. For example, stepping in between your dog and a trigger, kneeling down and getting on their level can be helpful in calming a dog down. The long-term solution is to engage your dog in training that helps to condition calm responses. Use positive reinforcement methods and create conditions that act like stepping stones to your final goal.

nother common mistake with verbal cues is that we will use one word to mean two different behaviors. Don’t confuse your dog by using one word to mean two different behaviors. If “down” means put your belly to the ground, you should use another word, like “off,” to mean jump off the couch. If you say “down” when your dog is on the couch, you are basically telling him to “get comfortable.” If you want your dog to sit, say “sit.” It’s confusing for a dog to hear the words “sit-down” – which taken literally should mean sit first, then proceed to down position.

Rule #2: Focus on Body Language and Movement

Using verbal cues when your dog is under a high level of stress or arousal will long-term diminish the significance of your verbal cues. For example, if your dog begins barking at the neighbor’s dog it is more effective to “body block” and lead him in the opposite direction, than it is to shout “quiet” or “no bark.” If anything, your dog is likely to interpret loud, repetitive commands as you joining in with the barking.

Rule #3: Bonding with Your Dog

Man and his grey furry dog walking through the forest on a hiking trail together

Make sure that you find activities that you and your dog can do together that you both enjoy. This could be positive reinforcement training, playing tug or fetch or taking a hike. Schedule this time in with your dog just like you would schedule a phone call or work meeting. It’s that important.

Rule #4: Generalize cues

If dad trained the dog to sit, lie down, stay, come, leave-it, high five, spin in a circle and play dead on the carpet in the family room, that’s a great start. Now the dogs needs help learning how to generalize all of these behaviors to:

  1. Other family members
  2. Different surfaces
  3. Other environments
  4. A large variety of distractions

Rule #5: It’s a two way street

We spend a lot of time trying to teach our dogs to listen to our every command, but we fail to take the time to listen to their attempts to communicate with us. Become an expert in your dog’s body language. Respect your dogs attempt to communicate. Know when to remove your dog from an environment that may be causing undue stress, anxiety or frustration. 

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