My dog can’t tell me the winning lottery number. But teaching a language your dog can understand allow your dog will be able to know a lot about whatever is coming up next. This ability to get clear information from words builds dogs’ interest in whatever I have to say.
Many people chat, but idle chatter is confusing to dogs. For example, people say “down” when a dog is jumping up on them, yet they don’t expect the dog to lay down. Dogs don’t “naturally” understand words, especially similar sounding but differently used words such as “no” and “go” and “okay.” It requires regular practice.
Guests are often surprised by the lack of dog mayhem at our and doors gates. My dogs are relaxed not because I’ve had to “show them who’s boss”, but because I can usually tell them who is at the door, and if they are coming outside or not. I can tell them to relax. When I say, “this is for Tigerlily,” only Tigerlily gets up and walks to the door. If a door event does not include dog participation, I say, “sorry! Dogs stay!”and they barely lift their heads, thump a tail, and go back to sleep. With experience their ability to understand grows stronger year by year.
Of course I must use the full palette of dog training tricks (food, toys, praise,privileges) to teach my dogs, but because I formally teach and use words, I can use words to reinforce desirable behaviors. Information is very reinforcing, so I let my dogs know when I see a “stranger” dog approaching. “Do you see the dog?” It helps my formerly “nervous Nellie” dog to avoid getting suddenly startled by a hairy beast. “Oh that’s Rover. He’s a nice dog!”
My dogs have lots of intentionally trained experiences with all these words. Their understanding puts me in a leadership position. They don’t need to warn me about the dog, because they can hear that I already know. They see I am not hysterical. My words help them predict that we will safely navigate any situation.
Sometimes people ask me how many words my dogs understand. The last time I counted, many years ago, it was about 100 different words. That’s not many, my dogs are mutts not border collies, but just few trained words can go together to make almost an infinite number of different sentences. They are constantly learning new words.
When I first taught Tigerlily the difference between ball, rope, and pencil, I saw her struggle to recognize subtle differences between English language sounds. So now I never (ever!) use the word “no” because it sounds perilously close to “go”. When I was teaching “down” and “bow” and I saw that “bow” sounded like “down,” so I changed the verbal cue to “ta da!” Much easier!
Some words (cues) are quite challenging to train, but many are easy! When I bring the puppy outside, I say “outside!” Serving water, I say “water!” Raining hard outside? For fun I try explaining, “water outside! Water, water, water!” It’s fun to see the light bulbs go on in their brains.
Choosing words carefully is a huge part of this training game. For example, the word “down” only means “lay down.” When I go downstairs I simply say “stairs!” or (on the boat) “go below!”If I want the dog to put all her paws on the floor I say “off” (not “down”).
Teaching clear precise words also helps us better observe how dogs think. It was very interesting to me to see that my dog Tigerlily identified her realistic looking toy squirrel as a “squirrel.” When I tell her to “get the squirrel and put it in the basket!” to my dogs, we were sharing a good joke!