It is remarkable how well our pets, especially dogs, seem to know us. They show us love, affection and help us reduce our stress even when we don’t know that we’re feeling it. When we speak, they seem to pay attention and understand what we are saying. How can that be when clearly dogs and cats don’t understand or speak English? What is it about us, and them that we can apparently communicate so clearly? Perhaps it’s the fact that we’ve lived with domestic pets for so long (as much as 20,000 years with dogs and 3,000 years with cats). Whatever it is, it seems that our pets understand us better than we understand them. This article will provide some ways to help pet owners improve communication with their pets.

One simple mistake many pet owners make is giving unclear or insincere commands. Be sure to communicate with your pet in ways they can understand. Give clear, single syllable commands and enforce them with appropriate action. Don’t say to your dog, by word or lack of action, “I’m telling you to sit but I don’t really mean it and you’ll probably get the reward even if you don’t obey.”

Be sure to listen and watch your pet with a mind on what the pet is trying to tell you. A confused pet, especially a dog, will often seem hyperactive and not listening, but what they are actually doing is trying everything they can think of to elicit a positive response from the human. This can often happen when the human gives unconvincing commands or neglects to follow them up with appropriate action. When I say “appropriate action”, I mean, show the dog by your own behavior how you expect it to behave. For example, if you give a “sit” command and your dog refuses to sit, tug gently but firmly upwards on the lead while gently but firmly pushing the dog’s hind downward with pressure above the base of the tail and a tucking motion of the tail.

As the human, the provider of food, shelter and all things warm and loving, it is your responsibility to lead your pack with confidence and determination and, of course, love and affection. It is so important never to train a pet with negative reinforcement or physical discipline. Always train by rewarding good behavior instantly and exuberantly and by correcting inappropriate behavior if possible, or ignoring it until it stops. Our pets are very sensitive to the ways in which we communicate to them. Because they are pack animals, dogs will try to react to every emotion the pack leader exhibits. Never yell at a dog. Instead, say exactly what you want the pet to do or not do, in a clear sharp voice. Don’t use the pet’s name when telling it “no” or correcting it. Only use the pet’s name for positive things such as calling it to eat or inviting it to chase the ball.

To back up your words with action, try a technique called “tell and show”. For example, our dogs had a real problem coming into the kitchen and being under foot when we were cooking dinner. They weren’t begging, as such, just being curious and in the way. We started communicating our displeasure by consistently shooing them out of the kitchen whenever they came in during meal prep times. Once on the other side of the entryway, we gave them the commands, “sit” and “stay”, which they already knew. These two things are the “tell”. We added the hand signal of pointing to the floor at the entryway to show them where they were not to go – this combined with placing a physical barrier are the “show”. It took many repetitions and we had to use a physical barrier (broom handle across the entry) briefly with one of them. They eventually understood and today the kitchen is a safer, dog free area at meal times. Why did it take so long? It took us about a week to notice that we were diligent about keeping them out when we were preparing our dinner, but not when we were preparing theirs. Once we started doing it all the time, they seemed to get it right away. Our training also came in handy when visiting friends. The simple command, “All dogs out of the kitchen” has been effective in their kitchens as well.

I’ve never run into a situation with a dog where it was the fault of the dog for not understanding the command. It was always the human not communicating clearly, or failing to understand the dog.
Not only do we as pet owners have to make sure we communicate clearly to our pets, we also have to observe and understand them clearly. Pets always do things for a reason, though that reason may not always be clear at first. If your pet is exhibiting a new or unusual behavior, ask yourself what, if anything, has changed in the house. Another thing to consider with new or different behavior is illness. Scratching can be a sign of fleas, an allergy, an injury or stress. Urinating in the house can mean you aren’t taking the dog out often enough, the dog is stressed about something or, it might be a sign of serious illness like cancer or a urinary tract infection. Newly developed “crazy” behavior might mean you are giving the pet too much food, not enough exercise or that they feel some unidentified stress. As we live with our pets over time, it’s important we come to understand what “normal” behavior is for them so we can spot it when it becomes “abnormal”.

When the dog is young or new to the household is the best time to begin effective two-way communication with our pets. During training times, make sure to break up the “work” part with plenty of play. Some trainers recommend five minutes of training followed by 10 minutes of play, a 2-to-1 ratio. People forget that many of the things that we do every day such as work, laundry and paying bills are even more boring for our dogs than they are for us. Dogs need to be able to run, and to jump and play frequently or they start to show signs of stress. Our dogs love it best when we play and interact with them. So, if you want to communicate your love and devotion to your dog most clearly, spend time with them doing things they like to do.

You’ll be greatly rewarded with a pet that is glad to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it.
For information on canine body language and insight into how our dogs communicate, visit the ASPCA