Poppy turned 6 months old at the end of November marked by two significant events. Firstly she was sterilised. I was dreading it, it was not something I wanted to put her through but it was the responsible choice. The SPAs and other refuges are regularly inundated with puppies due to irresponsible and ‘accidental’ breeding. Puppies are cute and generally get adopted quite quickly but a good percentage also end up back at the refuge when they become untrained and unruly adolescents. If you are not a registered breeder and you take on a puppy or young dog please talk to your vet and have them sterilised as soon as possible. There are many benefits from having your dog sterilised, avoidance of certain cancers for one. It is also a popular misconception that a sterilised dog will get fat, they will only put weight through overfeeding and/or lack of exercise.
The second event was a DNA analysis. It doesn’t matter of course what she is, she is my ‘baby’ dog and I love her but it’s fascinating stuff nonetheless. I have learnt that she is, as suspected, 50% Border Collie but also 25% Labrador Retriever, 20% Landseer and 5% Newfoundland. A nice mix character wise plus I now know what her strengths are likely to be and what health risks to expect.
So far Poppy has proved easy to train and I can now target her known abilities. I say so far because at 6-7 mths old she is coming into adolescence, the age when boundaries get tested and rules need to be reinforced. She is quick to learn but how much of what I say to her does she really understand?
My dog understands every word I say
Really? Is that true?
Anyone who owns a dog will recognise those words and has probably even said them at times. We talk to our dogs as if they were human and why not indeed!? Dogs are very good at listening and often give the impression that they are taking it all in. They sit patiently cocking their heads from side to side whilst we explain what we are doing in the kitchen or the finer points of a football match and the referee’s bad decision making.
What do they actually understand though?
“Now then ‘Poppy’ I’m just going to nip outside and fetch something and I want you to sit nicely and stay there until I come back.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it and she will probably do exactly that, thus giving the impression that she has understood everything I said.
What she really heard though was: “Blah blah blah POPPYblah blah blah blah SIT blah blah STAY blah blah etc”.
Our dogs are of course not born with an understanding of human language although they are capable of learning the meaning of a great many words. Only words though not sentences. That said, dogs are very accomplished at filling in the gaps and more often than not correctly.
So how do they do it?
Although vocalisation and scent also play a part, dogs communicate primarily by the use of body language and they are extremely adept at reading visual clues. Ears, tails, stance and facial expressions are all important in the dog world. We humans don’t have tails and in general cannot waggle our ears at will but we do have hands that move about a lot (many people ‘talk’ with their hands), bodies that can bend in many different ways and a great many facial expressions. This is why our dogs often seem to know what we are about to do, sometimes even before we know ourselves. They read all the visual clues that we, albeit unwittingly, give out. They are also very sensitive to emotions; they know when we are sad, happy, angry or ill.
Try this. Ask someone to strike a pose depicting an emotion or an action (e.g. I’m very angry! I don’t know!). I bet you get it right and that’s how dogs do it.
How does this translate into our everyday lives with our dogs?
Well it’s very useful for training purposes, as body language, hand signals and facial expressions are often much more effective than spoken commands. However our body language can also have a huge negative impact on our dogs and often contributes to training issues and even separation anxiety, a subject I will return to in the New Year.
Unfortunately for our dogs we are not as adept at reading their body language as they are ours and misunderstandings regularly occur. Something I hear often is, “I know that Fido knows he has done something wrong because when I come in he creeps around/hides/rolls over, so why does he continue to do it?”
Does the dog really know that what it has done is wrong in thus instance? It depends on the circumstances of course but mostly the dog is just picking up on the owner’s emotional reaction to whatever has occurred in their absence.
Let’s take a common example of a dog that raids the rubbish bin whilst its owner is out, the rubbish is tipped out and the dog is rewarded by some tasty morsels. The owner comes home and there is rubbish all over the kitchen floor, they are understandably angry and the culprit (because there is no question who did it) is in trouble.
There is a problem here though because whatever the misdemeanour you need to catch the culprit ‘red pawed’. Punishment, (which must never be physical) after the event, is futile and may even exacerbate the unwanted behaviour. By the time the owner arrives home Fido, probably by now asleep in his basket, will have completely forgotten that it was he that caused the damage. All the dog will understand is that when it goes to greet its beloved human, tail wagging happily, they are angry with him. It’s also evident that they are not happy about all the rubbish on the kitchen floor.
How did that get there by the way!?
The next time the owner is absent the bin gets raided again because it brings an instant reward in the shape of last night’s left-overs or the wrapping of something tasty (or smelly!). Then, having done the deed Fido suddenly realises that there is rubbish all over the floor! He doesn’t necessarily associate it with him tipping the bin out but he knows from previous experience that this makes his Mum or Dad angry, so he is now worried and when they arrive home the dog assumes a submissive or fearful posture. This in turn is taken as a sign by the owner that Fido knows he has done wrong. A vicious circle ensues with the owner getting more exasperated and the dog getting more stressed. In this instance a simple solution is to either remove or lock the bin.
If you remove the reward you stop the unwanted behaviour.
A very happy festive season to you all. Please remember that a great many of our seasonal treats are harmful to our 4 legged friends. Notably, chocolate, dried fruit (mince pies, Christmas pudding/cake etc.), cooked bones and fatty foods, onions, garlic, mushrooms and of course alcohol.