Humans lead very busy lives. We grocery shop for the family, prepare meals, dress active children, shuttle them to school. We work jobs, have doctor and dentist appointments, plan weddings, vacations and birthday parties. And don’t forget the occasional weekend getaway.
Our dogs focus primarily on us. Oh, they may have other pets in the house to distract them, bark at the neighbor’s dog on the other side of the fence, chase an occasional skunk or bird, but it is we humans that are the light of their life. Some dogs even feel responsible for us, warning strange cars pulling in the driveway that this house is protected by…insert dog name here. How do you handle that? Do you off-handedly tell him to shush, or give him a clear command such as “Quiet”, or praise him for his effort, if that’s what you want him to do?
Even if you have advanced obedience on your dog, a Canine Good Citizen certification, or your dog has a job that requires him to be with you throughout the working day, there are times when we give them mixed signals. We forget to take a second, and calmly look them in the eye or place a hand on them and communicate what we want from them. You may see the dog try to guess what you want, offering up a myriad of behaviors trying to figure out what to do.
He’ll follow you around the house from the downstairs washing machine to the upstairs children bedrooms, trying to tell you something, but you aren’t listening-until he barfs on the bathroom rug.
Miscommunication and MISSED communication is one of the leading causes of problems and irritation with all intelligent life living under one roof. Setting clear expectations in behavior is as important as being clear in our communications. It is within reason to expect a 12 week old puppy to mouth items you really don’t want them too. You can expect to have to watch them the same way you watch your one year old toddler around Legos so they don’t swallow them. By the time the dog is 2 years old, you should have spent enough time shaping his behaviors (clear communication through obedience vocabulary) so he goes and gets his chew toy and not your slippers, or puts himself in “place” when the doorbell rings instead of bolting out the open door (clear expectations).
Consistency is hugely important. Very intelligent or opportunistic dogs look for those grey areas, those times when dad isn’t paying attention or mom is busy, and they slide that half eaten sandwich off the highchair after having scouted the situation and think they’ll be successful. Even intelligent dogs overestimate their abilities most of the time. I have been known to reach fingers down and pull food contraband out of mouths so the illicit reward is never realized. No is always NO. As a result, I can leave a plate of steaming mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy on a low table, leave the room temporarily, and still have it there when I return. I live with 7 dogs.
Enriching a dog’s life is a form of communicating love. Create situations where you can say more Yes’s. Having a terrier dig holes in your nicely landscaped back yard is frustrating. As a breed of rodent hunters, he is ridding the yard of pests just under the turf and very proud of his work. Why not give him a pile of sand in a section of the yard just for digging? You can bury a few squeaky toys, or small plush toys every so often just to encourage an appropriate place for him to dig, and he will be able to proudly present you with his finds. Most Labradors love water- a small kiddie pool and a sprinkler can be wonderful. Husky’s love the cold- a few frozen ice blocks from large re-purposed ice cream tubs or dumped cooler ice works great. If your greyhound or whippet is in good physical shape, set up a small lure course. Their eyes will sparkle.
When you actively participate, clearly and consistently communicate with your dog daily, he will respond in ways that can surprise you. You will enjoy him more and he will respond to you on a deeper level than you may have ever realized. Everything we do with our dog is training.