Monday, February 23, 2009

Teaching Dogs to Shout

Dogs are “talking” to us all the time. The problem is that we are usually not aware enough to “listen.” We are intelligence seekers, mental multi-taskers, conceptualizes and believers. We have detached from the type of acute awareness we had when hungry carnivores were chasing us – the type that dogs, at least for now, still appear to possess today.

I went into a doggie boutique once and was greeted by four little canine store clerks. Three jumped up and down in uncontained excitement and one made only brief contact. She ran to a small chair at the end of a display counter. When I looked in her direction, she would glance from me to a spot high up on the counter then back again; me counter, me counter. I realized that she was telling me something so I walked over to see. When she had my full attention, she raised her paw upward in the direction of a box of cookies with yogurt frosting. (Good choice, I thought.) I told the proprietress that the dog was asking me if she could have the cookies, to which she replied “I know, she tells everyone about those cookies but no one ever notices.”

When we miss a dog's gentle assertions or requests, we can actually teach her to speak louder, to try harder to get our attention. Dogs who once sat quietly in front of us, making eye contact to get our attention, may begin to sit in front of us and bark. Or, they will come to our front and begin to paw-pounce us - jumping on us then quickly moving away. Not understanding this to be communication, we usually try to get the dog to stop; we may even punish the behavior. Dogs who once used a gentle paw-touch or muzzle tap may come to give us some forceful pawing and snout-shouting. A former student’s dog used to touch her gently with a paw while in bed. The dog wanted to get under the covers and couldn't unless they were lifted up for her. Sleepy and not wanting to move, my student tried to ignore those little paw-taps but they would continue and get more forceful. The little dog quickly went from a polite tap to a hard scratch to whatever part of the person that was out of the covers - usually her face. Ouch! At that point, the “request” couldn't be ignored, the covers would immediately be raised. The dog had been taught to shout.

Although they don’t use our language and have only three-ounce brains, dogs are wise beyond measure. They can show us how distracted we are and show us how to become acutely aware in the moment. The next time the one in your life begins to talk, if you’d like to help her to maintain a respectful “indoor voice,” wake up and listen.

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