Cesar Millan trains a horse and dog.

By Cesar Millan

About a hundred years ago in Germany, there was a horse that became famous for doing very impressive things that you wouldn’t think a horse could do. Known as Clever Hans, he performed in public and could do math, including fractions; tell time and dates; tell the difference between musical notes; and even read, spell, and understand German.

It sounds pretty far-fetched, but lots of witnesses saw the horse do it and his trainer was not secretly giving the horse signals to cue him in to the right answer. He didn’t have to cheat like that for Clever Hans, but not for the reason you might think.

Hans’ trainer didn’t have to cheat because the horse was already doing it for him. As long as the person asking the question knew the answer and the horse could see them, Clever Hans would get the answer right almost ninety percent of the time. If the questioner didn’t know the answer, though, the success rate fell to six percent.

Body Language Speaks Loudly

So what was the horse really doing? Paying attention to the body language of the person asking the question. Hans would answer by tapping his hoof, and one of the researchers involved realized that people would give subtle cues as the horse approached the right answer. The people were not aware that they were giving any cues and the shifts in posture were so subtle that other people would not be able to easily notice them either.

However, horses communicate with each other through very subtle changes in posture and body language. Clever Hans was just doing what horses do. It was the people who were not so clever in figuring that out.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Just like Clever Hans, your dog is very tuned in to your energy — your body language, your emotional state, your state of being-ness from moment to moment. In this case, though, it’s the dog that’s asking the questions, and the questions are all about you.

“What do you want me to do?”

“What are you about to do and how does it affect me?”

“Am I doing the right thing right now?”

If you’re like a lot of dog owners, you’re probably not aware that your dog is having this conversation with you all of the time. Plenty of people can understand that their dog wants something when she sits and stares at them or rests his muzzle on their leg, but they don’t realize that their dog is always asking questions whenever you’re around, whether that’s across the room at home or on the walk.

Look at Clever Hans again. If the question had been “what is five plus five” and the questioner gave the “right answer” cue when Hans had tapped his hoof eight times, then the horse would get the answer wrong — at least from a human point of view. But as far as Hans was concerned, he would have given the right answer.

We create unwanted behavior in our dogs when we give them the wrong answers.

When you give affection to a dog that is not in a calm, submissive state, you are telling her, “I approve of what you’re doing.” Give affection to a hyperactive, excited dog, and you’ll just make the dog more and more excited.

When you give a correction to a dog at the wrong time — too early or too late — you will just confuse the dog. Too early, and the dog will make no connection between the correction and his behavior. Too late, and it can make the behavior worse.

When you try to calm an excited or barking dog by yelling at her, what you’re really saying is “BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK!” To the dog, yelling is just joining in on the excitement, and giving your approval for it to continue.

If you pay attention to your own energy and your dog’s behavior, you’ll begin to see the moments when you give the cue for the wrong answer, making your dog do what he thinks you’re telling him to. Just like with Clever Hans giving a “wrong” answer, the blame is not on the animal. It is on the human who gives the wrong cues.

Stay calm, and pay attention to the ways you might be turning your dog into a Clever Hans.

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