In order to communicate with dogs we have to understand them as dogs. We have to look at the species as the amazing animals that they are. One human trait that will make this difficult for us is our tendency to anthropomorphize, or to give human form or attributes to an animal, plant, material object, etc.
We will combat our natural tendency to anthropomorphize dogs by looking in a matter-of-fact way at some things that we know about dogs. By looking at what we know as facts about dogs it will enable us to use those facts to aid in our interspecies communication skills.
This blog entry will focus on the third thing that we know about dogs. Dogs do what is efficient for them to get their way. I used to think that dogs just wanted to please their owners. That seems right at first, but when we look closer we see different things.
A dog’s first priority seems to be maturing, surviving and producing offspring. The maturing part happens with time surviving. Reproducing is a trickier thing for a dog to manage. In order for a dog to reproduce, that dog needs to move into a position of leadership within their pack.
The pack leader is the one dog that can get the rest of their family doing what that dog wants them to do and also not having to do anything the leader does not want to do. The leader is the one that controls the attention of the group; if they want attention they get it. They are also able to control the behavior of others in the group. The leader decides when to play and when to stop playing. The leader decides when to go to the water source and when to leave the water source. The leader prepares the family for the hunt, and is responsible for feeding and caring for each member of the pack. The leader position is a stressful position, but a position that must be filled.
Humans and pet dogs live in a mixed pack or a mixed family, in a human dominated world. Because of those two facts it is our responsibility as humans to claim and hold the leadership position and all the stress and responsibilities that goes along with that position. For us, as humans, to do this effectively we need to know how dogs lead each other, and adapt our own ways of leadership and communication to our situation and present needs.
Dogs lead and communicate with each other mainly through body language, space, distance, and energy. They also use vocalizations such as barking, growling, loud panting, howling, yelping, etc. The next step in being an effective leader is to identify what our dog wants. This may or may not be obvious. If your dog is staring at a cookie and barking we are probably right to assume that dog wants a cookie. If a dog is howling in a crate we would be wrong to assume that the dog is miserable and thinks the crate is a horrible place. Reason being, dogs are denning animals, and the crate is like a den to most dogs. One reason your dog is howling or barking in the crate is that the crate creates separation from the rest of the family. In a dog pack the whole family would enter the den together. Dens are natural to dogs but separation from the pack is not natural for dogs. The fact is we live in a mixed pack and separation is part of human dog family life. The howling your dog trying to figure out a way to get the door open to rejoin their pack.
An example of this is when my dog D-Dee was a puppy I put her in the crate. Not because she was bad or hard to handle but because she needed training about how to respect my house. She needed to learn not to go to the bathroom indoors, not to chew my stuff and that separation from her pack mates was and would continue to be a normal part of her live. (Read my house training blog entry is you would like more info on socializing your dog to a crate.)
So when D-Dee was eight weeks old I put her in the crate when I could not watch her. At first she barked. She barked every time I put her in the crate. To me she was communicating, “Hey you, this den has a door. This door is not open; can you open it? Now.” My answer was to ignore her. I put her in the crate when she was tired, she barked for a bit, I would ignore her and she would go to sleep. After a few days she stopped barking when I put her in the crate.
Then she started scratching at the bottom of the crate. To me it looked like she was communicating, “Well I know you can open the den, you do it when I am not barking. So how do I get you over here to open the den when I want you to? While I consider that I will try to dig under the door and maybe I can do something to get the pack back together.” So she scratched at the bottom of the crate, of course I made sure that she was not hurting herself but I never let her out while she was scratching. If she was scratching and I gave her attention by looking in the room she would stop and look at me. If I left she would continue scratching. In a day or two the scratching stopped.
Next D-Dee started to spin fast in the crate. At this point she was nine or ten weeks old. The spinning was kind of funny. A puppy Dobie is not very graceful. While it was a little funny, I did stop to think about why she may be doing it. I knew she got enough exercise. So I watched her and started to think that she may be showing frustration. She barked and I did not open the door. She scratched, was unable to tunnel under, and I did not open the door. Now she was spinning. Okay so I thought maybe I should let my puppy out, she is frustrated. We all know what that is like. Then I looked at the behavior and decided that I would not like my 70 pound full-grown Dobie to think she could get out of the crate that way. So I did not open the door. After a bit the spinning stopped.
One day I walked into the living room and D-Dee sprang up into a sit and looked at me. I went over, opened the crate, let her out and praised her. Nearly every time she did that I let her out and I never let her out if her behavior was not the behavior that I thought I could live with. D-Dee is now three years old. She loves her crate which she uses as a den, entering whenever she wants to be left alone. I still close the door from time to time. When she wants to get out she springs up and looks at me. Then I rush over and let her out.
All that is to illustrate that dogs have the ability to figure out what works to get them what they want in a way that a human can agree with. She wanted the door open and through a process of trial and error she figured it out. With patience and consistency from me, she learned. She also started to learn how to learn. That is another story for another time. Please keep an eye out for the continuation of this series. I hope you find this helpful in understanding your dog. Please share and comment, but as always keep it civil. Have a great day and Enjoy Your Dog!!!