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Why Does Language Matter?


This isn’t a post about what cues or what language you should use with your dog - we always tell owners they can use any cues they like – as long as the same one always applies to the same behaviour - this is a post about how the language we use to DESCRIBE our dogs and their behaviour affects our ability to train and work with our dogs successfully.

As human beings, we are anthropocentric – meaning that we see everything in the world from our human perspective, even the behaviour of non-human species. This results in another big word “anthropomorphism” which is attributing human characteristics to animals. So, we tend to look at animal behaviour and assign human motivations to that behaviour, because that is all we know. We try to evaluate animal behaviour in human terms, assigning complex reasoning and value systems to the choices that they make, regardless of whether they are in fact capable of thinking in such a complex manner. The problem with this, is that animals operate differently in some areas than we do.

At this point we need to look at some common examples of how dog owners tend to apply human reasoning to dog behaviour, so you can see exactly what I mean:

MY DOG SOILED THE CARPET TO PUNISH ME FOR LEAVING HIM AT HOME MY DOG JUMPS UP AT PEOPLE, BECAUSE HE IS NAUGHTY MY DOG LISTENS TO ME, BECAUSE HE WANTS TO PLEASE ME MY DOG KNOWS WHEN HE HAS DONE WRONG, BECAUSE HE LOOKS GUILTY

I could go on, as there are so many more examples, but the point is that in all cases, the dog’s behaviour is being attributed to moral choice and complex reasoning, which dogs simply do not have. When we refer to or assess a dog’s behaviour in these terms, we will look to solutions or ways to work with our dogs that match these terms, as follows:

MY DOG SOILS THE CARPET – “I need to show him that is unacceptable – he has no right to be angry when I leave home” or “I will give him lots of affection and extra titbits to make it up to him”

MY DOG JUMPS UP – “I need him to know that this is bad behaviour”

MY DOG LISTENS BECAUSE HE WANTS TO PLEASE ME – “I can ask anything of my dog and he will do it because he loves me – he doesn’t need rewards or training”

MY DOG KNOWS WHEN HE HAS DONE WRONG – “I can see he is sorry, so getting angry works and so that’s what I will keep doing – I don’t need to train him or give him something better to do, because he just knows what he should and shouldn’t do”

Thinking in these terms, prevents people from applying proper scientific principles of learning to resolving behaviour problems. It prevents people from properly understanding why a dog is doing something in the first place. It prevents people from taking common sense management precautions to prevent the dog from being able to carry out unwanted behaviour and it takes away any responsibility for ensuring that a dog’s emotional, social and behavioural needs are met in order to remove the underlying motivation for problem behaviour.

When we stop seeing dog behaviour in terms of right and wrong, naughty or good, willing to please or disobedient, and look instead at how dogs actually learn and what really motivates behaviour, we have a whole lot of tools to work with that can resolve behaviour problems effectively and humanely, albeit with a bit of work.

Looking at the examples above again in this new light:

MY DOG SOILS THE CARPET – Does the dog have a severe emotional reaction to being separated from you? Does the dog need help to learn to be more comfortable on his own? Did the dog have a chance to empty his bladder before you went out? Is the dog fully house-trained? How can we properly house-train the dog or ensure that he has opportunity to go to the loo before being locked indoors?

MY DOG JUMPS UP – Does this behaviour have a history of reinforcement? How can we reinforce the dog for doing something else instead? What alternative behaviour can we teach the dog to do when greeting people? Does the dog have some social anxiety? How can we help the dog to feel more comfortable around people?

MY DOG LISTENS BECAUSE HE WANTS TO PLEASE ME – Why do dogs comply with what we ask? They comply either because they gain something pleasurable from doing so or because they avoid something unpleasant by doing so (positive or negative reinforcement). Many owners who believe that their dogs adore them, actually have dogs that are scared of them and respond out of fear. On the other hand, our dogs can learn that complying with what we ask causes good stuff to happen – when we call them, it is supper time and they get a good meal. When we pick up the lead and try to put it on, they allow us to do so, because it results in a walk. If we do not realise that it is for these reasons that dogs do things and not just because they want to please us, we will run into trouble as soon as our dogs do something that we don’t like or don’t comply with what we want. We will avoid using “external rewards” like food or toys, because our beliefs are that our dogs should just do it because they love us. We will see introducing other reinforcers in silly terms such as “bribery”. We will be lost as to how to move forward. If on the other hand, we accept that our dogs are not altruistic, and we understand how reinforcement works, we will have no problem finding suitable rewards and showing our dogs that following our cues makes good stuff happen i.e. actual training!

MY DOG KNOWS WHEN HE HAS DONE WRONG – This is a clear case of misreading appeasement behaviour (reaction to a threat) for guilt or understanding of right and wrong. If your dog looks “guilty” that means that your dog is scared of you at that moment and trying to stop you from hurting them. Is that how you want your dog to feel about you? That you are dangerous and need to be placated? When we hold to this view, we take anything our dog does that we don’t like personally. They are “defying” us. They are “disobeying” us. Instead we should be asking what is reinforcing the behaviour we don’t like, how we can remove this reinforcement, how we can change the environment to prevent the problem, how we can change how the dog feels to prevent the dog needing to engage in this behaviour.

I cannot put into words how much I love my dogs – they are my “children” and I adore them. I will do anything for them and I have a close bond with them and they with me. They are my partners and companions in just about every aspect of life. HOWEVER, I know that my dogs come when I call, because I have reinforced that behaviour repeatedly with food, affection and play. I know that they are a pleasure to walk and extremely compliant, because I have consistently set up the environment to reinforce the behaviours that are useful, safe and socially appropriate and prevent the rehearsal of ones that are not useful, safe or socially appropriate. I do not have some magic aura that makes them listen, they don’t engage out of “respect” or due to some mythical status that I hold. They enjoy being with me, because I have made being with me fun and I do everything to understand and fulfil their needs as dogs, rather than treat them or expect them to act like human beings.


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Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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