When the Dog talks

Who Listens?

Permission to reprint.
By Ed Bailey

Everyone who lives with a hunting dog has experienced it: “The dog reads my mind.” From the moment just before you have decided to do it, your dog knows you are taking him for a run. He starts the maddening stuff – spinning around, crashing into you, grabbing your wrist, yapping or whining, and maybe raking your arm with claws you thought were trimmed short. Each time the walk is coming up, he goes through his antics. Each time, you get mad. How nice to have a laidback, stoic dog who will lay chin on paws by the door, or, at worst, sit with ears perked, alert, and waiting. The message he is sending with his gyrations is not, as you might rationalize, the exuberance of your keen hunter.

Reconstruct what happened. He picked up a subtle signal from your bearing, a movement or some slight change in your attitude that said something might happen. But he doesn’t know what, so he starts going through behaviours which he has gone through previously and which have ended in success – a run in the fields.

With each preparation you make to go afield, like getting the whistle or leash, your boots, a special hat, you reinforce his bouncing behaviour. Then out you two go and he again has proof that the way to get you off dead centre and into something constructive is to go through his “make it happen” routine. Why not? Primitive peoples, when experiencing a solar eclipse, beat on a drum. Sure enough, the sun comes back in a little while so everyone knows that to beat the drum is to make the sun return.

The dog is beating his drum by going through his playbook of behaviours. And each behaviour is a stimulus he is sending to you. When presented with each stimulus, you respond appropriately (after all, you have been well trained) with loud commands to “sit,” or “be quiet,” and he has succeeded in getting your attention. A few counter-clockwise whirls and a two-cushion shot off the wall and dor is the next signal to which you respond – pandemonium, and the dog is making it all happen. He is doing it in his way, using his signals in an elaborate pantomime, and he must do it that way because you don’t understand his language. Finally, out you go and his whole act is applauded by the successful result.

How do you avoid the floor gouging, paint-removing production? First, know he did not read your mind. He read an intention movement and responded with an intention movement of his own. This would be the point where the behaviour would be stoppable, before it escalates. You can take control by ignoring his attempts to make you commit yourself. Instead, go on a different lead – have a cup of coffee, wash the whistle, oil the leash, anything, but do not persist on showering him with your attention while continuing your attempts to get it all together for the walk. After trying a few unsuccessful moves, he will become quiet.

When he has become well settled and with no fanfare or excitement of any sort, make him sit and stay, get your gear, and go out for the walk on your terms. Now you are reinforcing the sit-stay response. This response will become his new intention movement you made.

Dogs learn by associating a stimulus with getting a reinforcement, a reward for making a correct response. Any response producing a positive reinforcement will tend to be repeated the next time that stimulus occurs. If the reinforcement for a response is negative, the dog will tend to respond differently – but not necessarily correctly – on the next presentation of the same stimulus. If there is no reinforcement – positive or negative –to a response, but the response is just ignored, that response will diminish and disappear on subsequent presentations of the stimulus. We say then the response has been “extinguished.”

However, in order to know whether a response or a whole behaviour patter should be reinforced positively, negatively, or ignored, we must know what that response or pattern of behaviour means and why it was given. We must “read” the dog and learn his intention movements from the subtle squint of the eyes or hold of the ears as well as the not-too-subtly-presented signals of urinating on the foot of an overdressed lady visitor or demolishing the drapes. We have to gain access to the dog’s world.

Thanks to the work of John Scott and John Fuller and their co-workers, we have well-documented information on the socialisation process in dogs. The dog, better than any other domesticated animal, has the capacity to socialise on people as well as on his own species.

Socialization is a process whereby an individual learns through early experiences the social communication system of the species. In the dog, this socialisation process takes place over about a two-month period starting in the dog’s fourth week of life. From the fourth to the tenth week, socialisation on his own species occurs. From the fifth week to the twelfth, the dog is able to socialize on people. The ability of the dog to socialise on people is, for us, the most fortuitous thing because this socialisation process si what makes the hunting dog possible.

During the socialisation period, the dog learns the meaning of all social communication involving him as a team mate with a human. By the time a pup leaves the litter, if he has been properly socialised, he will be reading you; he has arrived in your world. But when did we ever learn to read and understand the dog’s social communication system? When did we socialise on the dog? We never did. We don’t know the language. We don’t even use the same modes of communication to the same extent.

Much of the dog’s communication is by scent, a lot of it is by vision, comparatively little is by hearing, and practically none is verbal communication. He makes sounds, of course, but these are more attention getting or for emphasis than for carrying information. So he might be vocal, but has little vocabulary. He comprehends the vocal messages we send to him and obeys (sometimes) only because he has formed associations between these often-repeated words and the reinforcement produced by his response to the words. What he does understand is body and facial expression and intonation, regardless of the word. If done correctly, we can make ‘ice cream’ sound like, “in a second you are going to be dismembered.” And fortunately for our own pressure release, we can swear most endearingly.

But what do we know of his world of communication? The urination by your male on the Avon Lady’s shoes does not have the same connotation humans would put on it. To the dog, it is a signal. Through the extinction process and some negative reinforcement, the dog has learned to keep four feet on the floor while in the master’s house. But suddenly, there is this strange item in his normal environment coupled with very real vibrations of distrust or annoyance at the disturbance by the visitor and defensiveness coming from the master or mistress. He helps out by marking the territory – not just his, but yours. He picked up signals, read them correctly, responded in his language, and probably got clobbered for it. Every thing was correct according to his dog socialisation and his people socialisation. What was wrong and brought the thunder and lightning from above was misunderstanding his motives, altruistic as they were.

Urination and, to a lesser extent, defecation, are used by both male and female dogs for communication. In our culture, these means of sending messages are never used except for lewd reference to emphasize a point. Consequently, we misunderstand this message carrier most often. Females in heat advertise the fact by depositing urine all over the place including in the house. The behaviour is innate and is triggered by the physiological condition of high levels of circulating estrogens and some progesterone’s acting on centres in the midbrain, particularly centres in the hypothalamus. To punish a bitch for this urination would be a useless exercise. She doesn’t know that urination by any other name or in any other situation is still dirtying the house. To her, urination under pressure of a full bladder is something she has learned is done outside. What she does when in heat is not remotely connected to bladder-pressure-induced urination. So depending on the situation, urination by a bitch might or might not be used for social communication.

Similarly, urination by males can serve a communication role as an ownership claim, an expression of dominance, an attention-getting device, or it might be just because
his bladder runneth over.

Urination on particular things or at places can also be evoked by unusual or specific smells such as a small dead animal, faeces of another animal, or even a disinfectant encountered in a motel room. We cannot evaluate urination as just a dirty habit and punish appropriately. There are many extenuating circumstances. Each situation must be analysed in terms of the dog’s world and dealt with in the correct way. In many situations, the best way is to ignore it. The dog might be trying to send a message which you really don’t want to receive. Unless you enjoy teaching an old dog a new way if getting a rise out of you, ignore it until it goes away.

A breech of conduct, lapse in memory, and deliberate disobedience should not be ignored. You must read the situation, enter the dog’s world of communication, and make a discovery of why he did it. There is no formula for reading the reasons. Every instance with every dog is a unique situation to be understood only in terms of that dog in that time and place. Urination can be and is used as communication in the dog’s world. The dog perceives it by scenting and comprehends it in terms of his social system.

We have the same problems reading other signals given by the behaviours of dogs. The hard stare of a stalking dog carefully moving on a running bird makes the dog appear dangerous, light panting makes him appear happy. Another dog would tell us that neither is really the true situation; we tend to anthropomorphize. We interpret the dog’s communication in terms of our own social system. Because we are so poorly conversant in his language, he must sometimes resort to very elaborate charades which we must also attempt to understand.

When we consider how hard the dog works to get his message to us and how little we comprehend of the content of those messages, we might well wonder why dogs tolerate us at all. The way we can truly glimpse things from the dog’s side is to patiently observe and evaluate in light of the situation at the time. When we can do that – when we can honestly read the dog – prediction of what is to happen next will be possible. When we can predict accurately, we can avoid the undesirable and create the desirable. But most important of all, we might be allowed to at least stumble along for a bit inside the dog’s world.

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Updated 2nd January 2005