Should Dogs be able to give us Cues?
Traditional thinking has always been along the lines of “You should control your dog; they shouldn’t control you”. People seen to give into their dogs’ requests were told disparagingly that they were allowing their dogs to train them. Furthermore, dogs were expected to jump through all sorts of human-designed hoops before they received anything from us at all (e.g. nothing in life is free programmes).
But there has thankfully been a revolution in how we raise and train dogs and one of the things we are so much more aware of these days is the importance of control when it comes to emotional wellbeing. Being able to exercise some control over things in life is empowering. Having no control over anything can lead to frustration, stress and eventually depression.
Imagine moving to a country where no one spoke your language and you did not have a clue how to communicate your needs. Imagine that every time you attempted to gesture that you needed something or tried to help yourself to something, you were verbally or physically assaulted. Imagine if the people you can’t communicate with decided that every time they deigned to give you something, you needed to sit down or stand on your head and until you figured out what they wanted and did it, you got nothing.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yet, this is exactly the situation that many dogs face throughout their lives. The reality is that we do control pretty much everything in our dogs’ lives. We decide when they eat (and what they eat and how much they eat), we decide when they get to go for a walk (and where they walk and for how long they walk), we decide whether they get to meet other dogs and people, we decided when to play with them, when or if to train and work with them, what toys they can have and where they can sleep. We even control when they have access to us and our homes and for how long. Every aspect of their lives is under our control. So how do we ensure that our dogs do not feel helpless, frustrated, stressed or depressed? Well, we need to give them back control by opening the lines of communication and allowing them to show us what they want and need.
Modern dog training focuses far more on encouraging dogs to be active participants in the training process, by reinforcing them for engaging with us, for offering behaviours, for problem solving and trying new things. This is a very different approach to traditional training, where a dog was expected to do nothing until cued and any initiative shown by the dog was frowned upon. In this sense, by making the dog an active role player in training, we are giving them back some control over the training process and allowing the dog to guide us as to how quickly we can progress from one step to the next. They are able to initiate exercises and, while we may set the environment up to encourage them to perform a certain behaviour, in many cases, from the dog’s perspective they are choosing what to do and figuring it out for themselves. As a result, the level of engagement and enthusiasm we see in dogs in our classes these days is huge in comparison to more traditional schools, even where positive reinforcement is used, but where the dogs are expected to do nothing until they are told what to do.
But it is not just in training that we need to consider allowing our dogs to have more control. We need to consider how we can give our dogs back some control over their everyday needs. We should be aware of what our dogs are asking for and we should be willing and ready to help them. Rosie and Cruz have many ways of asking for things:
1. Rosie will paw the bed, when she wants to get on – she doesn’t need help getting up, but seems to want encouragement, so I say: “Good Girl, up you go!” and she will spring up and settle down. 2. Cruz will stand and stare at the water bucket and then look back at us – this means the water is not fresh enough and he wants us to fill it up. 3. Rosie will moan just a little if Cruz is lying in the way and she can’t get past – she will look at him and look at me and make little noises. She is asking me to ask Cruz to move slightly so she can come through. 4. Late in the afternoon, I usually start getting stared at – this means that supper time is nigh! 5. Both dogs will go stand at the door to go out. 6. Cruz will go to and scratch on our bedroom door at night (which is open), if he wants to get back on the bed with us, but it is too dark for him to see where he is going to land – he wants us to switch on the light so he can see what he is doing. 7. Every morning, Cruz does a little dance that ends in a curtsy (bow) or rest (putting his chin on the ground), because he wants us to get a ball off the bookshelf, to start the day off right. 8. Every time Rosie comes inside after going to the toilet, she runs and stares at the biscuit tin, because she wants a biscuit. 9. Cruz will stare at the “chew” tin where I keep sinews when he is in the mood for something to chew. 10. In the evening, Rosie will paw the pillows on the dog couch, so we can move them so she has space to get up.
We generally respond to all these requests from our dogs. They are not unreasonable requests and they are all for things that make their lives comfortable and cause us no harm whatsoever. These little things help our dogs to have some control over the good things in their lives and keep them willing to communicate and engage with us. The key is to identify subtle and polite cues from your dog and respond to those, before they become less subtle and possibly inappropriate. I am sure that many dogs “demand” bark, because it is the only thing they have found that is annoying enough to actually get a response from their humans. Every other subtle signal is ignored and barking becomes the only successful option. If you want to avoid having a dog that barks to get you to listen, start looking for other ways your dog may be communicating their needs and responding to those.
These days we like to claim that our dogs are our partners and not our slaves, so why should we be the only ones ever allowed to ask for anything? Our dogs should be able to ask for things. If we allow them to do so, we can give them back some of the control that we have over their lives and make an enormous contribution to their emotional wellbeing.
Photo: Cruz doing his best "Please can I have my ball" curtsy: