Dogs and Words: Sequence Matters

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How we speak to dogs is incredibly important. Besides the tone we use, and its accompanying emotional impact, our specific words, and the order in which we say them, influence our dog’s responses. I graduated from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University in 1998. Fairhaven is an inter-disciplinary college, and a department of WWU. My concentration was titled The Power of The Word: Expository, Dramatic, and Fictional Writing. Besides literature and writing, I studied psychology, sociology, economics, business ethics, scientific ethics and methods, and, of course, behavioral science. My final project was about the importance of precise language, and the sub-conscious confusion that comes from poorly worded direction. One example I used in my project was this sign:

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We know what the sign means, but what does it say? Doesn’t it say REGISTER (at an undisclosed location) TO VOTE HERE (at the location of the sign)? Most folks are confused for a moment, then parse the real meaning and go abut their day? How many people, like me, see that sign and find it confusing, every single time they read it?  Why doesn’t it say REGISTER HERE (at this location) TO VOTE (someplace, maybe here, but could be anywhere). One answer is that grammar traditions often take precedence over actual logic. “REGISTER HERE TO VOTE” puts the adverb out of sequence. Or does it? If there is danger on my left, is it okay to walk my dog on my right? Those damn traditions again. Of course it is okay to move the adverb. And it is okay to walk your dog on the right. 

Dogs are confused about stuff like that sign all the time, and we get frustrated because they don’t understand. Like me, dogs are not very good (even worse than me!) at inferential thinking. It means dogs don’t necessarily infer the meaning we wish they did, just because we do (it also means they may understand how their actions affect our actions, but they don’t infer how their actions affect our emotions; dogs don’t [can’t] do things to “get back at us”).

“He knows what I want, she just won’t do it.”  Sound familiar? The cue sequence we teach dogs is: Name, verbal cue. “Frankie, sit.” Think of how many words dogs hear each day that they don’t understand. They tune us out just to avoid going crazy. If we don’t say their name first, they often don’t listen, not to be difficult, but to maintain their sanity. If you are a comic or movies fan, think of the telepathic Jean Grey and Professor X from the X-Men movies, being overwhelmed with people’s intrusive thoughts. Like those fictional characters, dogs have to intentionally not listen sometimes, to preserve their own sanity.

In a room full of dogs, or out in the world with countless human conversations happening all around, I hear this all the time:  (mumbles, or speaks while looking away) “Sit.” (enunciates, or looks at dog, who is looking away)  “Sit!” “Sit, Frankie!” (dog looks when he hears his name; now person is yelling, “SIT, Frankie!!!” (dog sits, sheepishly) “Damn dog, totally disobedient.” The human in that example never actually said the cue correctly; the dog inferred what was expected from the series of verbs, but can dogs move pronouns around and infer the meaning the way humans can? Maybe, but not as fast, not by a lot.

Which species has the oddly large brain? Which species is the master of verbal language? It is on us to communicate in a way that our dogs register, and that means being consistent. Dogs aren’t stubborn, or spiteful. They can certainly be distracted, and they must tune out a lot of what we say to maintain sanity. I see people mis-communicate to dogs all the time, and every time, I think of that damn sign. Speak slowly, and enunciate. Say their name first, unless you clearly have their attention. It is good to practice without hand signals, but don’t be ashamed to use them if needed. If you aren’t getting your desired or expected result, stop. Ask yourself why not? It’s probably that damn sign.

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