Thursday, March 26, 2009

You Can't Speak Dog

Here is another stake in my ground: I unequivocally disagree with any training method that attempts to mimic dog communication. Examples of this include growling, or the old-fashioned Alpha-roll.

The idea of trying to communicate to your dog using their own language sounds pretty logical right? The problem is a human trying to act like a canine usually only further confuses the dog.

Take growling. First of all, dogs use different growls in different situations. (see "Growling" on my Tips page). Lets say that maybe you are able to successfully mimic an appropriate vocalization. Dogs also use lots of body language to clarify exact intentions. Of all the dogs we’ve owned, when one wanted to indicate the other should “stop” or “back off” they used growling/barking WITH definitive body language. These actions were always clear to the offending dog, and they always complied. You should also note that a dog’s body language almost always includes the ears. I, personally, am not able to voluntarily pin my ears back or get them to stick straight up. The only time my dogs seem to understand a growl is if we are playing tug.

Actually, just now I tried making a nasty growl while staring at an inanimate object. The dogs looked at me but showed absolutely no interest or concern and went back to sleep.

Using the Alpha-roll is similarly problematic. People are taught to force their dog onto his back in a submissive position in order to establish dominance. This is not how dogs do it. If you’ve ever watched two puppies playing you have seen how one may at some point willfully roll over on his back. But then when the other dog backs off, the submitting pup jumps right back up and starts pouncing again. Does this mean the other dog has established dominance? No! It means the pup was saying, “Hey, look, I’m really no threat”.

Dogs actually indicate dominance using combinations of staring, growling/barking, showing teeth, nipping/biting, resource guarding and marking. Communication among dogs is actually not quite as simple as some dominance trainers would have you believe.

Dogs are masters of observation and adapting to their environment. When your dog consistently goes to the door, you realize that’s his signal he needs to potty. Your dog can also learn what you want to communicate in the same manner. Be consistent with cue words and body language. Reinforce desired behavior with rewards. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your dog will start understanding, and how much calmer everyone will be.


  1. Great post!

    Mimicking horse language is the fad in the horse world these days.

    Dog (and horse) language is so subtle and complex, there's no way we could approximate all of the sounds and body movements, even if we wanted to.

    I think I'll stick to training cues for behaviors I do want!


    Mary H.

  2. I'm enjoying your blog.

    I have a dog who has been treated well all her life by every human she's met and who therefore is friendly.
    I've always wondered what would happen if an unfriendly person attacked me when I was out walking. I thought that maybe if I growled at the attacker my dog might get the idea I want her - just this once - to protect me.


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