If I were to ask you what one of the most frustrating things people can do to you is, I’m pretty sure that your answers would probably mostly revolve around miscommunication — whether someone doesn’t explain clearly what they want or even goes so far as to lie outright.
It’s easy to take that kind of thing personally even when it’s not, but it’s also easy to miss when we do it to others. And yet, it’s the kind of thing we do to our dogs constantly without knowing it.
We mislead our dogs when we are not absolutely clear in our intentions, and we lie to them when we give them affection at the wrong time. The end result can be dogs that are frustrated, fearful, confused, or even aggressive, but the solution is very easy.
Stop deceiving your dog.
Lack of clear intention leaves your dog uncertain what you want. For example, if you want your dog off of the sofa but you say “Down” in a weak and uncertain way, your dog reads your energy as telling her that you really don’t want what you’re asking for. If you’re not confident in your body language on the walk, then your dog will try to lead because you aren’t.
Confuse your dog like this enough, and he might start ignoring you completely because he’ll have learned not to rely on what you’re telling him. It’s a lot like that old story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” At first, when there was no wolf, the townspeople believed him, but by the time he was serious — and really needed their help — no one did, so no one came to his rescue.
If your dog doesn’t believe you’re serious when you want her to do something, then she’s not going to pay attention. How many times have you heard someone say — or said it yourself — “My dog doesn’t listen to me?” Well, this is exactly why.
There’s another form of lying to your dog, though, that is much more difficult to catch yourself doing and also much more damaging, and this is when you inadvertently tell your dog that you approve of their behavior when you don’t.
If you have a small dog, have you ever picked him up when he’s gotten aggressive toward another dog? For a dog of any size, have you ever petted or held them when they were scared by something, like a loud noise or a stranger? Have you ever let your dog have that treat after they failed to carry out your command?
In each case, you’ve rewarded your dog for doing exactly the opposite of what you want. And dogs are all about figuring out what brings them good things and what brings them bad things. All animals are because they learn instinctually and react by association.
This is the same reason that you cannot punish a dog for doing their business in the house unless you actually catch them doing it. Otherwise, the negative association attaches to whatever the dog was doing in the moment. If he happened to be lying down calmly when you started yelling because of the mess on the rug, then you’ve just taught him that you don’t want him calm.
This is why it’s so important to be absolutely aware of when we’re giving our dogs affection, and to only do it at those times when they are behaving the way that we want them to, whether actively — by behaving on the lead, or following a command — or passively — by being calm and submissive.
This is also why we have to be absolutely clear in our attentions and express them to our dogs with completely certainty. It is only when what we want and how we express it match up that we are telling our dogs the truth, and only when we are truthful that we can get our dogs to do what we want.
Stay calm, and communicate!