LISTENING WITH OUR EYES
“Saving just one dog won’t change the world, but it surely will change the world for that one dog.”
Let’s put ourselves in our dog’s shoes for one moment. Assume you have had some repeated difficulties with your owners. After many attempts to understand the denizens of your domicile, you’ve made no progress. No matter what you do, your owners continually misread your every move. Your collar is heavy, and your paws feel tied.
The first thing that happens is someone in the house attempts to teach the sit command with a “No More Mr. Nice Guy” attitude. They act very stern and sound frustrated as they loudly say, “Siitttt, siitt.” The dog is like: “I didn’t understand what you wanted when you were being nice.” Things remain unclear when a new person, aka “the good cop,” intercedes and starts waving treats in a circle. Then the dog hears a long string of baby talk: “Wait, come, look at me, pay attention, good boy, good dog baby, now come, sit down, you can do it, that’s it, come on come on puppy dog booby baby you can do it, sit, sit, sit down already, just sit, like this, sit, sit, sit.” The dog thinks, “Huh? Come again?” It paces nervously: “That’s a lot of words to learn . . . I don’t know what any of them mean . . . how am I ever going to get that treat?” Every single word has a distinct meaning to a dog, even though it has yet to understand the monosyllabic “sit.” The dog says to itself, “I’m gonna sit this one out.” When there’s more than one person in the household, the dog has probably never heard a unified, cohesive message. Typically, each person has tried a few approaches, tones, and timbres with little success.
There are a million wrong ways to do something and very few right ones. Whatever you’ve been taught about the right tone, stance, voice, and demeanor to use in dealing with dogs, forget about it. Had it worked, you wouldn’t be reading this book. The only thing worse than the wrong message is a few of those wrong messages shaken, stirred, and watered down into a cocktail of misinformation.
“Ever notice that perfectionists can never get it quite right?” So many dog owners try to be perfect, for all the right reasons, but they just end up missing out. I’ve trained innumerable dogs where the owner could tell me, down to the jots and tittles, what the dog is doing wrong, along with hundreds of reasons why they think their dog behaves poorly. They never tell me what they think the dog is communicating or how, as owners, they might be executing poorly. In fact, I rarely hear anything about the dog doing something right. I’ve discovered time and time again that the focus should always be on observing and not reporting. I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s essential to calmly detach and get a sense of what your dog is trying to communicate.
We’re going to conduct a little experiment now, but first: There is only one solution to an underexercised dog—more exercise. It’s irrational to give an animal built to work anything under an hour a day of brisk exercise. Now to our experiment.
Next time you come home, spend fifteen minutes not engaging your dog. Allow a momentary acknowledgment, then go about your business. Now keep an eye on your pooch. What happens within a minute? Usually, the dog will attempt to follow whatever your normal routine is with added vigor.
When this doesn’t work, your dog will persist and possibly break into a whine. At some point, it will give up, but not without a fight. This is the common progression:
■ The dog greets the owner with a “Come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right!” level of excitement (a client of mine named her dog Bob Barker).
■ The owner matches the dog’s level of excitement.
■ The dog jumps, pees, nips, and freaks out in general.
■ Vain efforts are made to chill the dog out.
■ Owner invokes an abrupt “Okay, that’s enough.”
Bob Barker is a Yorkshire terrier that did not engage in the above sequence. He is also one of the first dogs I ever trained. When I first spoke to his whisper-quiet owner, Sheila, I was so thrilled to be training dogs that I didn’t bother to ask about his issues. Between my excitement, Sheila’s subdued voice, and Bob Barker’s nonstop barking in the background, not much information was processed. I must have said “I’ll be there” about ten times, hung up the phone, and actually made it to the subway station before I realized I didn’t have the address. I made another call, got the address, and said “I’ll be there” one more time. The only prep work I’d done was a little brushing up on the breed, which proved intimidating at the time: “Although classified as a toy breed, this is a terrier through and through,” “can make a determined and boisterous watchdog,” and finally, “even when properly trained, this dog will never be considered quiet.” Uh-oh. On the subway I began worrying about how I was ever going to get this dog to stop barking. I arrived with no good plan.
Every trainer has a client in the early going who is notably unique or weird. Sheila is unique. She whispered on the phone like Marilyn Monroe, but when her door swung open, I was greeted by a woman who looked like a cross between the St. Pauli Girl and Zsa Zsa Gabor. She also spoke in a thick German accent at deafening volumes. Why would she whisper on the phone? “Who needs that accent? It’s no fun until you see the package,” was how she explained it. Sheila is one of the most spirited, interesting people you’ll ever meet. “I’m here to have fun, baby” is her catchphrase. In her travels, she managed a graduate degree in physics and an Ivy League MBA. She now consults with Fortune 100 companies on how to optimize employee efficiency by having fun in the workplace. “So you’re having a problem with the barking?” She emphatically shook her head no. “Just the opposite, baby,” she said, and walked over to the window to examine some drapes. “I don’t feel my Bobby Barker and I have the best relationship. He’s only interested in me when I’m busy, like all the men in my life. But I’m so much a serious one when I tell you this. It’s a gigantic problem.” She went on to tell me that Bob would have barking fits when she wouldn’t play with him. Her melodrama, phrasing, and a little epiphany I was having caused me to break into laughter. What I had read earlier that day flashed through my mind—“even with proper training this dog will never be quiet,” “determined and boisterous”—and yet I felt relieved.
Sheila had somehow made me forget that Bob Barker was in the room. How was this possible, when his barking was all I’d heard on the phone? Why wasn’t he barking in the apartment? To this point, Bob had come up for a very civilized meet-and-greet before making his way onto the sofa and puttering around her big living room. He was anything but a nuisance or noisy. In fact, he was church-mouse quiet. Why? The apartment wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Even the irreverent Yorkshire terrier was no match for Sheila. Her personality was so demonstrative and loud that Barker couldn’t get a bark in edgewise. In a fit of unwanted adaptation, the Yorkshire terrier shut up. The moment Sheila got quiet or on the phone, Bob would start barking up a storm. According to her, he was expressing his displeasure with the relationship, and she may have been right. Bob probably thought something was wrong when things got quiet.
Training entailed teaching Sheila to “share the stage” with her dog. She had to quiet down around Barker and engage him without being so “on” all the time. He couldn’t make sense out of Sheila, so he’d step back, attempt to determine his role, and follow the closest thing to a script that he could identify. We practiced having Sheila come home by calmly walking through her front door. Once inside she gave Bob the first crack at being excited to see her. When she made her entrance in a more subdued fashion Bob began to pipe up. I doubt I’ll ever have another session like that. I’ll never forget it.
Dogs will readily follow scripts and without them attempt to determine appropriate behavior. Although their energies may ramp up quickly and come down slowly, they think their behavior is in line. When a dog jumps on an owner until she’s annoyed, getting shoved off in anger will become part of the routine. Next time you come home, hold your ground and don’t engage. The dog will eventually realize that jumping up is not producing a worthwhile result and will go back to its business. With enough time, the dog will understand that it is not his job to do this when you arrive.
■ Dogs WILL look to you for cues and clues as to what comes next.
■ Dogs will NOT automatically know what to do or where to go.
Back to the fifteen-minute exercise:
■ Did going into observation mode and departing from the normal routine stress the dog?
■ If so, did he remain stressed?
■ Did the dog redirect onto obsessive or unwanted behavior?
■ Did he stare out the window or begin to bark incessantly?
■ What messages have you conveyed to the dog? For example, are you tense, agitated, or preoccupied?
■ How is the dog to know that he’s not the problem?
Studies have indicated that dogs can distinguish between human emotions using their outstanding sense of smell. Even if you two normally celebrate your arrival at home, any worry thereafter could cause a rational animal to wonder if it is the problem. Going forward, try taking some space. After the obligatory “good to see you,” settle in and try to sense each other’s energy levels and mood.
Remember, dogs communicate and read our signals as instinctually as they breathe, so maybe, just maybe, their behaviors aren’t as irrational as they appear to us. Why does a dog chew on a shoe? It’s marked with your scent, and it allows the dog to feel close to you; the dog is bored, anxious, lonely, hungry, teething, or underexercised; the dog might be protecting the shoe; or it may resemble one of the dog’s toys. There are innumerable possibilities but typically only one main motive per dog.
What did you learn by observing and not readily engaging your dog for fifteen minutes?
■ Your arrival sent him into an excited state (thanks, Detective).
■ He needs to chill out as much as you do.
■ One of you calms down much faster than the other.
■ Without some direction, the dog stays excitable.
There are endless possibilities, but these are the most common. When my dogs first warmed up to me, I thought it was cute: Look at how happy Chiquita is to see me, she loves me so much! The reality is that my border collie/pit mix has a slightly nervous disposition, which is not unusual for the breed. She may be excited and happy to see me, but she’s also en route to being stressed. Maybe it’s her herding instincts gone a bit awry, or maybe it’s part and parcel of living in New York City or being a border collie. Regardless of the reason, I want my dog happy, so an extended celebration routine is not in her best interests or mine.
To get back to the dog’s point of view: To best describe the right course of action for you and your dog in a given scenario, consider the dog’s personality. In the case of Maya from the last chapter, the difficulty stemmed from human oversight. Rachel knew how playful her dog was and even sensed that Maya’s heart was not into training. She knew the deal but understandably lacked the confidence to try training Maya herself. When I first got to her house, I threw a leash on Maya and learned the following by watching her:
1. Maya was playful, physically strong, willful, and sneaky.
2. Maya’s ability to concentrate was sound, but her attention span was short.
3. Maya attempted to communicate through play.
4. Maya knew how to perform her commands.
5. Maya was unclear on what was expected from her.
AT WORK, AT REST, AT PLAY
The first couple of points are easy enough—but what does attempting to communicate through play really mean? Maya was clinging to Rachel, trying to engage her in play, because play was Maya’s favorite activity. Other dogs might be dying to work with you: Think of a Belgian Malinois performing advanced agility drills, or the sled dogs Roald Amundsen used in a race to become the first person to reach the South Pole (his competitor used Siberian ponies and perished—just saying). These are working dogs. And of course we all know those dogs that just want to chill on the couch: the purebred companion dog for the couch potato. My pit bull, Pacino, wants nothing more than to lie on the couch and be petted. As long as he gets sufficient exercise, I am convinced that dog was born to be in a state of repose. For Chiquita, even relaxing can appear to be a working activity; she constantly checks to make sure everyone’s accounted for and in the right place. Maya’s default setting was to play for play’s sake. Without knowing exactly what she should be doing, Maya was trying to be of service by playing with Rachel. When Rachel pushed her away, Maya’s anxiety increased, so she seemed incorrigible even as she tried harder to please Rachel. Using the reward of playing with me to gain Maya’s interest, I showed her the fundamentals of a game that called for her to lie on her dog bed. To get her through the learning process, I kept her interest with treats and enthusiasm. Once she knew how to play the “sit on the bed” game, the activity became its own reward. Maya now had a job that gave her structure and confidence. Her anxiety levels dropped, too, which helped her stay on her bed and get some rest.
I mentioned how the activity became its own reward. The activity became its own reward, or was the dog in it for the treats? Well, both. Teaching a kid the basics of hitting a baseball is fairly difficult, but to anyone who has played the game for a minute, there is nothing better than taking batting practice. To a six-year-old, learning the fundamentals of a batting stance—how to keep the head down, swing level, learn the strike zone, and avoid wild pitches—is boring, because all anyone wants to do is swing away and watch the ball fly. One may have to promise ice cream in exchange for fifty swings off the tee, but once those fundamentals are captured, playing the game becomes the reward. The same holds true for dogs.
To get the best out of your dog and play to its strengths, you must take some time to see how your dog behaves in a number of environments while engaged in different activities. From there, you’ll be able to glean what motivates your dog and apply that to teaching. Don’t worry: In the later chapters, I will provide a list of commands as well as some remedies to common issues. The idea here is to learn to speak some dog, which is a work in progress that will last as long as you and your dog do. Don’t worry about getting it all perfect, because hopefully you recall that perfectionists never get it quite right.
Assignment: With fresh eyes, just observe your dog’s behaviors both on and off the leash, indoors and outdoors, around other people and animals as well as solo. Do your best to observe for a minimum of thirty minutes per environment (listed below) over the course of approximately a week (feel free to keep reading though). Again, this is not intended to be an exact science. There will be some gray areas. For example, a highly alert dog versus an anxious one can be difficult to distinguish.
1. Inside the house—both off the leash and on.
2. Outside—in familiar company, on and off the leash (if applicable).
3. Inside the house—around unfamiliar people and animals.
4. Outside—around unfamiliar people and animals.
The environments are pretty self-explanatory. “Other animals” refers to dogs, cats, and wildlife. Having a leash on your dog in the house may be new, so try it out. See if your dog behaves differently, and don’t be afraid to use the leash. Do not worry about being too specific in your assessments because you will be using the following five measures, on a scale of 1 to10, averaged across all environments, to render your verdict:
1. Energy—low, medium, or high (1 to 10). In terms of activity level, does your dog appear lazy, hyper, or somewhere in the middle?
2. Temperament—mellow, average, alert, or anxious (1 to 10). Your dog’s general disposition toward the environment: at ease, on guard, curious.
3. Desire to engage—independent (thinks it’s a cat), average, or eager (1 to 10). How quick your dog is to interact, play, and learn.
4. Confidence—apprehensive, average, or outgoing (highly confident) (1 to 10).
5. Accelerometer—how quickly does the dog’s mood change/escalate (1 to 10). After physical activity, does your dog stay wound up or go right to sleep? When someone rings the doorbell does your dog bark for a few seconds and move on or does it stay amped up?
Before you begin the assignment, take a stab at these numbers right now (the before) using the 1-to-10 scale for energy, temperament, desire to engage, confidence, and accelerometer. Average the numbers out (for example: My dog’s energy level across all environments is a 6; its temperament is 7) for a maximum score of 50. I realize that this exercise may feel like an uneducated guess but you’ll have another chance as soon as you complete the assignment.
THE EYES HAVE IT
Did you complete your assignment? Maybe you took the initial guess and are in the process of completing the assignment. Have you learned anything about your dog? Did your numbers change between the before and after? Here’s a general guide:
Below 10: You should check your dog for a pulse or be more generous with your ratings.
Below 15: Lower numbers can indicate trauma. Shy or disengaged dogs also fall into this range. In general, it’s hard to imagine a happy dog with these numbers. If this dog felt a little better, it would begin to act out in less than desirable ways. Not difficult to train but tough to engage. This dog is likely not doing much wrong or even much at all. Needs the Robin Williams character from Good Will Hunting to say, “It’s not your fault.”
16 to 24: The low end of normal. This dog needs more encouragement than most, is likely shy around new people, needs training and socialization. High candidacy for separation anxiety and fear-based behavior. The healthier dogs in this range are usually adults that were always mellow. Dogs in this category are difficult to train as they tend to lose interest quickly, and are tough to get a read on. They are often “poker faces” that need more love and to be made comfortable.
25 to 35: A typically well-balanced dog. Should respond easily to training. Gives back what it gets. Any difficulties are a reflection of the owner. This range holds the average difficult personality type that is worth the effort, as well as the dog that everyone describes as great.
35 and up: A handful but well worth it. Spirited, not to be easily deterred. If these dogs played football, they would thrive on tough love. Think Bill Parcells or Vince Lombardi as coaches. These are the smart kids who need to be challenged. They can hyper-focus but if you don’t keep their attention, those quick minds will find something else more interesting.
By now, you should have a sense as to where your dog fits in, although a dog’s profile can change with training and owner input. This is merely the beginning, as we shift our gaze from “what should we do?” to “what are they doing?” As for the numbers you came up with, don’t worry about them for now, but do store them in a safe place for later.
A BOX OF ROCKS
When people see a bulldog dragging its owner around or a terrier barking incessantly despite urgings to be quiet, most people will chalk these behaviors up to instincts and breed disposition. These are known characteristics of the breed, so how do people respond to such profiling of their dogs? They limit training with respect to these specific behaviors and end up having walking billboards of breed stereotypes. Bulldog owners who complain about their dog’s stubbornness and resistance to learning are often prone to underexercising them. When I suggest sufficient exercise and stimulation as a potential solution to the problem, they shrug and say they heard bulldogs don’t need much exercise or interaction. That sucks. When we view certain breed characteristics as shortcomings, learning comes to a halt until the owner is pried open to the possibility that the dog is capable. This may sound kind of obvious, but I would estimate that being prejudicial or rushing to judgment played a factor in over half of the dogs I’ve trained.
A guy in the dog park used to insist to me that his two-year-old Westie mix named Boomer was “timid” and “dumb as a box of rocks.” For the record, there is no way that dog is going to be dumb or void of personality. Why did the man say so? Because Boomer would not come when called. The man illustrated by casually calling Boomer. At that moment, Boomer was fervently digging into dry dirt. Upon hearing his name, Boomer looked up, momentarily surveyed his owner, and went back to his archaeological exploration. Fact: Many dogs in this situation won’t look up any faster than a kid in a toy store having a textbook waved at him.
Another couple of callouts, and two angry minutes later, the owner marched toward the dog, now saying “Boomer” with more conviction. His voice didn’t get that much louder but deeper and more threatening. By this point, the pack of digging dogs had made progress, and they were taking turns sticking their snouts into the hole. As Boomer’s dad made his final approach, Boomer squeezed out a few more seconds of play before getting scooped up. He cringed in his owner’s arms as the unhappy man mumbled his equivalent of “bad dog.” He stormed back to me, and Boomer’s cringing gave way to happiness as he looked at me like a kid who had run into his best friend at the principal’s office.
“See what I mean?” the man asked. I didn’t. “I give him his time and don’t bother the dogs, like some people. I let him do his thing but when I call him nicely, he never comes.” He continued this strange defensive pleading: “I’m not one of those jerks who freaks out when their dogs bark or nip each other. I don’t bother him. Damn dog.” This guy went on complaining about the regulars at the dog park (some of whom, I agreed, were annoying). I mentioned that using a deeper, tense tone of voice was not helpful. He looked at me suspiciously, but to his credit, agreed that marching and pointing at a dog whose head is underground is useless. A minute later, he kissed his dog and told Boomer he loved him. He then said he was a “sucker” and never stayed mad at Boomer for longer than a minute, but Boomer’s “stupidity” always wound him up.
Was Boomer a little dumb after all? No way. To my eyes, his personality was social, smart, mature, defiant, and a little sneaky. To his owner, he was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Polar opposites.
Since we know the owner’s rationale for Boomer being intellectually challenged, let’s make our case for the dog’s genius.
■ Social. Dogs that can take turns digging are well socialized, no way around that. The only potential exception is a dog that digs obsessively.
■ Smart. Let me count the ways:
1. Boomer knew that hearing his name at the dog park meant “Time to go home,” and he was in no rush.
2. The owner’s tone told Boomer that he was in trouble, and he made an executive decision to wring out his playtime. I love this dog.
3. The owner had a lot to compete with in the dog park, and Boomer showed great awareness by looking up.
1. Boomer did not run from his owner. Any dog can be tough to corral at a dog park if they were not trained on this specifically.
2. Awareness. Boomer’s lifting his head upon hearing his name speaks to his maturity.
3. He was playing with three other dogs and fully cooperative.
1. Boomer’s shift from worried to happy when he saw me is telling. He knew exactly what he was doing the whole time (although this may just be my personal belief).
2. Many dogs would come running the moment Big Poppa’s voice dropped half an octave.
3. Boomer was not intimidated in the least.
■ Sneaky. I observed that the dog’s cringing was a phony act of remorse that he’d learned to please his owner. I’m admittedly guilty of humanizing this dog on a couple of counts but Boomer had me convinced.
Owner’s fix: At the park, check in with your dog now and again, and reward it with affection and praise for coming when called. The dog will learn to associate being called with something positive rather than a sure sign that playtime’s over.
Dogs like Boomer are easy to train because they are whip-smart. For us to be good dog owners, we must act like good detectives and be masters of the obvious. To me, Boomer’s dad had to use his imagination to make Boomer stupid. Just look at the evidence.
We opened this chapter by citing an example of how an owner sends mixed messages to a dog by trying different tactics before heading back to status quo. This is exactly what Boomer’s dad was doing, and the dog rode it out until the old softie returned. The owner would have learned a lot about his dog and found a way to get Boomer to come if he had given him a little more credit. At the very least, he would have been far less upset and a lot more impressed.
As we learn to listen with our eyes, it is up to us to have an open mind that assumes, looks for, and finds a dog’s intelligence. Just because a dog’s native language and best senses differ from ours does not mean it is incapable of understanding. Just ask Boomer.