Communication is key

2014-09-18 00:00

IN the previous article, I looked at communication between dogs themselves and also pets with humans.

Quite often, owners believe the canine mind can understand words spoken in sentences and, that if required to perform a certain action or cease with any specific behaviour, a dog will understand the spoken content.

Over the years, when telling people this is not the case, responses vary from those who are eager to know what their pets actually understand, to owners who are plainly irritated because someone dares suggest their beloved Feebee does not have the same mental abilities as themselves.

There is a big difference in telling a 12-month-old Labrador retriever to fetch a ball versus an instruction to stop self-mutilation at a time when the wound requires medical attention.

Fetching objects is a natural, instinctively driven action, whereas requiring the cessation of stereotypical self-mutilation like acral lick granuloma, is normally indicative of a pet with a stressed state of mind.

Dogs develop and produce behaviour patterns based on memory and have routines based on location, time and association with whichever parties are present when the event takes place.

After a dog has been dropped off for the first time to commence boarding, it is interesting for me to see how various behaviours begin at certain times, even though the owners are absent and the environment changed.

Pets may start barking, crying or howling to initiate repetitive routines such as feeding times.

If Jonty, the four-kilogram Yorkie, jumps up against me to “tell” me his bowl of food needs to be placed on the ground, that is not really a challenge.

However, when the same jumping is done by Jasper, a powerful 65 kg boerbul, the rules of engagement change vastly. With Jonty, a change in body language will create a change fairly quickly.

In Jasper’s case, modifying body language incorrectly could result in serious injury.

Place a collar, chain or harness on Jonty and he can be subdued quite easily. With Jasper, placing or attempting to fit a collar around his neck may lead to regrettable consequences.

Talking, or even shouting using sentences, only makes things worse.

Dogs do not understand that jumping against owners is problematic. What they notice, and remember, is the party that produces most of the actions, is the one with the least status.

Due to people’s ages, disabilities, dogs with differing body masses and varying lifestyles, having a relaxed responsive pet means we need to communicate using a “language” our canine companions can receive comfortably.

I often ask people why they struggle to interact successfully with one pet, yet have seen me telling 15 dogs of all ages, what to do. The most common response is my pets see a pack leader. That would mean they know what is required when I address them.

Talking to an eight-week-old, an eight-month-old or an eight-year-old pet means respecting abilities such as brain development, strength and even instinctive breed-specific behaviour. The pack leader has to know what language the pack understands — which means especially the main criteria is effective communication and not physical strength.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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