I normally eat a banana for breakfast. Bananas are a great source for potassium and taste good. My dogs don’t understand bananas. They think they like it when I offer them a piece, but quickly spit it to the ground after realizing it didn’t taste as good as it smelled. Words (and fruit) are arbitrary to a dog. Just because we tell our dogs to “stop it” or “no” doesn’t mean they understand. Believe it or not, there are a lot of adult dogs out there that don’t have a good handle on what their name is. You read that right: just because we name a dog “Fido” doesn’t mean he understands it. A dog must be properly taught its name and what it should do when it hears it (which is to look at the person that said it). Even if the dog truly knows its name, it doesn’t view it the same way we do. Despite what we see in animated films, the dog doesn’t introduce himself to others using his name like us two-legged folk. He associates the hearing of his name with what happened next.
This is where things start to get interesting, so let’s perform a test. Pick a word, any word the dog doesn’t know. I’m going to use the word binder. This word means nothing the first few times I say it to the dog, but if the dog receives a tasty snack after hearing the word binder, they start making a connection. Repeat the process of saying the word binder, followed by the giving of a savory morsel a few hundred times, and now the dog associates the word with the subsequent action. We have taken an arbitrary word (binder) and turned it into a conditioned response of the dog waiting by the cookie jar. This is one way dogs learn. The word binder is now powerful in that dog’s world because he loves treats.
Now we throw a wrench into our newly learned word. We are going to continue to say the word binder, but now there will be no treat given after the word. Repeat that process a hundred times (give or take) and the word will lose its meaning. You took away the motivator that excited the dog about the word. The word is arbitrary again the same way it was the first time he heard it. This goes for every word we teach our dog. If we stay consistent, so does our dog’s reaction. If you give the word sit a positive connection, the dog is likely to perform because he enjoys the outcome. If you say the word no and follow it with something the dog doesn’t like, he learns to stop doing that thing when he hears it. These are weighted words. We have taken these light and airy and meaningless words and placed a positive or negative outcome with them. Now they carry weight and mean something to you and your dog. And this ladies and gentlemen is the crux of dog training-opening the line of communication.
You understand the dog and the dog understands you. Speaking to your dog in full sentences and expecting comprehension is like someone speaking Latin to you and expecting the same result. We may be able to use context clues to help determine roughly what is being said (tone of voice, rate of diction, hand gestures, etc) but it’s mostly just a dead language to us and dogs. That said, I have entire conversations with my dogs (they are great secret keepers!). Don’t lie, we’ve all done it, and a lot of times letting it out is the most helpful. Remember they can read your tone and body language, just not the paragraphs coming from your mouth.
In conclusion, can you communicate with your dog? Yes. Can you give a word meaning to your dog? Yes. How can you do these things? Call me ;).
Til’ next time, pup lovers.