Do You Expect Your Dog to be Psychic?

Sierra fortune tellerMost mornings, my husband and I take our dogs hiking. Because I lug my camera with a ginormous lens in hopes of seeing coyotes, he handles both leashes. This morning, I was walking ahead on a narrow trail when they came running up behind me. A noise sounding something like, “Uh-uh!” came from my husband. As they got even closer, he finally said, “Duck!” This was my signal to participate in the Dance of the Leashes by ducking my head so they could pass without anyone getting tangled.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and the way we communicate with them. I had no idea what that first sound my husband made meant. I had a notion that it was directed at me, but I didn’t know what specifically he wanted. Once he clarified, I understood. Now, if I asked100 dog owners whether they’re clear when they communicate with their dogs, the majority would answer yes. But would they be right?

I constantly hear owners telling their dogs to “Leave it!” when their dog is approaching or has a forbidden object. Sometimes, because of the tone of voice alone, the dog will momentarily freeze or back away. But how instructive or fair is it if the dog has never actually been taught what “Leave it” means? In case this is something you need to teach, here’s a simple way to begin. Use treats, but not the ones that make your dog do backflips—choose something he likes of so-so value. Hold one treat in in the palm of your hand, and another behind your back. Let your dog see the treat in your palm, then make a fist. As your dog sniffs (trust me, he will), keep your hand solidly in place. Once he backs off, even for a second, say, “Yes!” to mark the moment, then immediately reward with the treat from behind your back. (I recommend this rather than giving the treat in your palm because you don’t want your dog to learn that backing off something means he then gets that thing.) Within a few repetitions, most dogs learn that backing up is what earns them a treat. Once you can reliably predict that he will back up, say, “Leave it!” just as your dog backs up. With more practice, he’ll associate the words with the action.

Of course, there’s more training needed to help your dog generalize “Leave it” to other objects and situations, but think about a dog who has been trained this way versus one who has no idea what the words mean. Unfortunately, it’s far from just this one cue that we expect dogs to know. Many people talk to their dogs like they’re…well, people! They expect their furry family members to understand when they use full, wordy sentences. If the dog is especially talented, maybe he’ll pick out the pertinent words, but it sure makes things more difficult. Another common error is using the same cue, for example, “Down!” for different things such as lying down, getting down off the sofa, or not jumping on visitors.

Next time you find yourself giving your dog a cue he hasn’t been taught, or assuming he’ll understand a full sentence, ask yourself whether you expect your dog to be psychic. And then do both of you a favor by taking the necessary steps to ensure he doesn’t have to be.
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5 Responses to Do You Expect Your Dog to be Psychic?

  1. nissetje says:

    I totally expect my dogs to be psychic, haha! But I am very lucky in that they read me incredibly well. I’m going to try the backing up trick!

  2. Cree Wolf says:

    You don’t think dogs can understand full, wordy sentences?? You’ve never owned a Border Collie! LOL!!!

    • ejhaskins says:

      Cree. I agree — even Borders who are not THAT smart. I tell people that the only reason that dogs don’t learn Human, is because most humans don’t talk to them.
      There is a LOT more meaning in speech that just the verbal content. A lot of meaning is carried in the rhythm of speech, and the intonation. — just like dog barks, growls, whimpers and howls 🙂

  3. ejhaskins says:

    I hate the use of “Leave it!”. People keep on saying don’t say no to your dog as it is a negative command and tells them nothing –but then they use a shouted “Leave it!” whenever the dog is doing something they don’t want it to. Pull on the lead, bark at other dogs, dig in the garden.
    Nothing wrong with a NO, provided it is followed by something more informative. but if the dog is going to eat something it shouldn’t I’ve found ‘Yuk” better than ‘leave it’, and ‘drop it’ or ‘put it down’ if they have something in their mouths they shouldn’t. Or ‘give’? Or ‘open our mouth’ (so I can pull the chicken bones left on the grass at the picnic area out of their mouth. Or ‘come away’ or any of the same sort of things I use for toddlers (or if necessary husbands).
    I must admit though that Sallee gets “Leave Milly alone!” when she’s saying “Bitch! why don’t you go home!” to Milly who is now a fixture here.

  4. coldnosewarmheartblog says:

    Totally reminds me of myself making my boyfriend hold all the dogs leashes and I carry my phone or camera to snap pictures! Haha

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