Yes, your dog wants to go on a walk. No, you don’t have to ask them.
Brittney Frazier, Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many walk time rituals between dogs and their owners. First there’s the questions (“Want to go on a walk?” and “Where’s your leash? Let’s go get your leash!”), then there’s the collar-grabbing, chasing around the house and constant meaningless babble from the human which somehow miraculously ends in a leashed dog panting heavily and dragging their human out the door. It’s no wonder we witness countless cases of leash reactivity each month with the amount of stress we see owners put on their dog before even beginning their walk.
I want to shed some light on the daily routines we perform with our dogs which might not be as helpful for our dog’s behavior and psychological well-being as we would like it to be. Humans, by nature, are very social and vocal beings. We like to express things such as emotion, opinions, and inquire about the environment we surround ourselves in. Dogs on the other hand, while still very social in their genetic make-up, communicate in a much different way. Although dogs have domesticated alongside humans for thousands of years, resulting in the outstanding emotional bond we know and appreciate from them, we have to remember that what we view as cute and exciting might be interpreted as the complete opposite to an animal.
Dogs do not speak. This seems obvious, but you wouldn’t know it by the amount of verbal communication we see from owners to their dogs. However, dogs do interpret what we say by what we teach them based on the experiences associated with our words or tones. The good news is that this allows us to communicate commands to them. The bad news is that anything the dog does not understand is many times interpreted as anxiety. Because excess anxiety turns into stress, this means we are stressing our dogs out! That’s right, the more you talk to a dog, the faster their mind races to understand just what it is you want from them, being the eager-to-please man’s best friends they are. And the faster their mind races, the more the dog associates that anxiety with you and the environment the dog is in at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, their sensitivity to our mood and emotions is why we love them. We love their adorable reactions when we return home after a long day of work. We love the way they bark and spin when we put our shoes on to go on a walk. We love the way they tilt their head when we ask them just why it is that they are so adorable! So we keep talking and talking and talking away to our dogs and encourage all the neurotic excited dog tendencies we see not knowing what kind of stress-related behavior it will turn into. And as a dog trainer, the vast majority of how I see dogs react to stress is not usually favorable to us.
I don’t want to negate the fact that there is a time and place to build excitement and healthy drive in a dog, which talking and verbal coaching is extremely useful for, if not mandatory. Fearful dogs often need the sound of a human voice to make them feel confident enough to jump into a car for the first time. Active and excitable dogs need you to be just as excited about “fetch” as they are in order to keep the game going long enough to tire them out. Verbal praise is also an extremely effective tool used in the same way to mark and positively reinforce a desired new behavior. At times, humans may need to use their voice to “break the ice” with a dog, such as speaking calmly to a fearfully aggressive one during a first meeting to avoid a challenging demeanor which can cause the dog to react.
However, the majority of us humans have entire conversations with our dogs without acknowledging why we are doing so in the first place. So how do we communicate with our dogs if we can’t use our voices? Body language and energy are two forms of communication we share with animals. If you have ever been liked (or disliked for that matter) by a dog without obvious reason, you most likely communicated unintentionally with the dog through either of these forms of communication.
Dogs are very intelligent creatures and learn most of what they know about us from simply observing our habits, which means we are constantly training them whether we are meaning to or not. Instead of announcing every new event, especially those already associated with high amounts of excitement, such as feeding time and car rides, simply begin the activity without saying anything and see what happens. Chances are your dog will follow along suite with their normal routine because they are picking up other cues from the situation (keys, food container, collar and leash), however there is no added stress from meaningless words. By beginning the routine with a calmer demeanor, your dog is bound to stay calmer and more focused throughout the duration of the activity and less likely to respond in an inappropriately excited way in the future. This can literally change the way your dog acts around you by adjusting one simple habit. That means less barking, jumping, lunging, and neurotic tendencies overall.
So the next time you are tempted to announce your dog’s car ride and watch your dog explode with excitement, try silently walking to the garage and inviting your dog up on the seat with a pat. Trust me, your dog will thank you for it!