Mixed Signals

By David Schmucker

Picture the last time you asked for directions.  After providing your destination (say, a new restaurant), the helpful person started to describe the route using words and gestures (“Go straight and turn left at . . .”). More than likely, a question or two was needed before verifying the directions (“Did you mean a right
at . . . ?”). Both you and your navigator spoke the same language, you both knew what particular gestures meant, and both had a mental map of where to go. 

Now compare that to your dog’s options.  You don’t speak the same language (grrrr . . .), a limited number of gestures are understood (pointing), and there is no ability to visualize the route. And clarifying questions are – well – out of the question.  It is remarkable that any communication takes place between people and dogs.  But it does!

Are You Repeating Yourself?

A dog’s hearing is four times more sensitive than a human’s.  Moreover, very high-pitched sounds are well within his hearing range – remember the “silent” dog whistle?  So does it really make sense to shout commands?  Does it really make sense to repeat a command over and over until the dog complies? In both cases I like to suggest that it does not.  Loud and repeated commands are, most likely, being used for dual purposes.  Purpose number one is to get the dog’s attention. Purpose number two is issuing the command (i.e., sit, stay, etc.).

This is a mixed signal

Repeating a command over and over appears to work because the dog seems to comply. However your dog is probably responding to the first or second command.  The time you spent issuing the third through sixth command was being used by your dog to process the first and second command.  The extra commands actually delayed the response and overloaded his mind. 

This is a mixed signal.

Using your dog’s name when you ask him to come and also when you want to correct a behavior creates conflict in a dog’s mind.  To your dog, his name is the same (for instance – Onyx), only the tone is different (Onnnnnxy vs Onyx!!!).  Asking your dog to decipher the difference in your intentions creates uncertainty. 

This is a mixed signal.

Looking a strange dog straight in the eyes while asking it to come to you says “I challenge you” (eyes) and “I’m trustworthy” (friendly gestures).

This is a mixed signal.

Asking your dog to walk beside you (follow the leader) while you are fearful or frustrated (dogs can sense fear & frustration) is like pulling and pushing at the same time.

This is a mixed signal.

Clearing Things Up

The remedies to these mixed signals are self-evident.  Here are some additional tips.  Absolutely, positively, be definite about what you are asking for.  Walking your dog is a good place to start. Before the first step is taken, settle your dog by your side – sitting and quiet. This provides a clear starting point for the walk.

Decide what you want before asking for it.  Do you want to get his attention or have him sit?  If you are not clear what you want, you’ve just sandbagged your dog.  Repeat a command at most once or twice, then wait for a few seconds.  If the dog complies, then reward him; if not, show him what you want (e.g., with the sit command, press the hindquarters down).  Loudly spoken commands probably have a rock-concert volume to your dog. At that volume, it is hard to hear clearly, and nearly impossible to think.

Although dogs mature physically with strength and speed that can exceed a human’s, the dog’s mind is a different story.  At best, the mind matures only to the level of a 6-to-8-year-old’s. 

So be clear, give your dog what he needs, so he can give you what you want!

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David Schmucker & Tessie

Senior Trainer

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