16 Things We Do That Send Incredibly Mixed Signals To Our Dogs

Often times when we are training, we blame the dog if something goes wrong: they don’t respond to a cue, the dog is either not listening or acting “stubborn”; we ask a dog to do something and he does the opposite, he’s stupid, etc. However, in a lot of cases it is actually our communication that is causing the breakdown. Greg Kleva, Bark busters dog behavior therapist and Master Trainer provides the following examples of times we confuse our dogs (and then blame them for it!)

If you encourage a dog or inadvertently reinforce behaviors at one time, but scold your dog for the same behavior at other times – even in different situations – you will send your dog mixed-signals. The old “it was okay then, but not now.” For example:

#1 – Old shoe vs. new shoe

If you give your dog an old shoe to play with because, “that’s an old one that I don’t care if he chews,” don’t get angry with your dog or punish him for chewing your good shoes. Your dog doesn’t know the difference between “old shoe” and “new shoe.” Encourage your dog to play with dog appropriate toys instead.

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#2 – When you greet me, do it like this (unless I am wearing this…)

You might enjoy the apparent “I’m so happy to see you” jumping up that your dog does when you return home. But, if you encourage that behavior, you cannot expect your dog to understand that he shouldn’t jump on you when you’re dressed up. If you don’t want torn stockings or a rip in your suit or dress, discourage jumping up of any kind. Same goes for allowing them to jump on you, but not strangers or guests.

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#3 – To bark or not bark

Many dog owners appreciate when the “guard dog” instinct kicks in…growling and barking at every bump in the night and sound or movement outside your home. But allowing your dog to be on guard won’t help him differentiate noises that are commonplace and not threatening, so it would be unfair for you to get angry when he barks at those times too. You’re better off teaching your dog to be calm and quiet and hope that should there every truly be a threat to you or your home, your dog will act on it’s protective instincts at that time!

Image source: @dineshrajgoomany via Flickr

#4 – The couch – on limits or off?

You can’t get mad at your dog when you come home to find a pile of shedded dog hair on the furniture after you spent the entire previous evening snuggled up on the sofa watching your favorite sitcoms.

Image source: @Schatziandpickles via Flickr

Using “human language,” or the wrong tone at the wrong time may get you the exact opposite response you desire from your dog. Put simply, pleasing tones will positively reinforce your dog’s behavior, “growlier” or rougher tones will discourage your dog’s behavior.

#5 – Come to me, NOW!

For reliable recall, you should always use high pitched, happy tones. Calling your dog to come to you using an angry tone, or calling your dog to you only to scold him or pull something away from him will only keep your dog away from you when you want/need him to come to you at other times. Always use encouraging tones to teach your dog to come to you reliably, and praise him for doing so!

Image source: @CrystalRolfe via Flickr

#6 – Is it still praise if I’m yelling?

Some dog owners mistakenly praise their dogs using ineffective tones – ***growly tone*** “Oh, good boy Tucker…what a good dog!!!” Your dog could mistake your growly tone for displeasure, in which case he may avoid the good behavior you were trying to positively reinforce – or the dog may keep his distance from you. Always praise with high-pitched, pleasing tones. (editor’s note: adding rewards such as petting, toys, or treats will also communicate you are pleased with your dog’s behavior.)

Image source: @Eileen via Flickr

#7 – Speak plainly

Dogs don’t understand human language. Of course, they can learn words/commands through time & repetition…literally hundreds of them. Having a conversation or attempting to reason with your dog won’t get you the result you’re looking for. If you want to communicate to your dog effectively, think good body language and effective tone. If you wonder why your dog won’t stop jumping on the counter after you’ve told him 100 times that he’s a bad boy, consider that perhaps you’re not getting the information across to your dog in a way he understands – as a dog!

Image source: @sunsets_for_you via Flickr

#8 – Reinforcing what, exactly?

Your tone reinforces the behavior your dog is exhibiting at that moment. We often use soothing, nurturing, coddling tones when our dogs are stressed out or afraid – like in the case of Separation Anxiety or other fears & phobias, even when barking/growling at people (“Shh Shh Shh – it’s OK…it’s OK, Mommy is right here…”) But doing so will only teach the dog the way he/she is acting at that moment is appropriate. At those times don’t let the dog’s emotional state determine your tone as much as the behavior your dog is exhibiting at that time.

Image source: @eng1ne via Flickr

#10 – The chase

Chasing after your dog may be your first reaction when it becomes necessary to reclaim your stolen sock, however doing so will only cause your dog to think it’s time for another fun game of keep-away! Instead, you’ll have much better luck crouching down and using fun, happy tones to encourage your dog to bring the stolen item to you…

Image source: @DonDeBold via Flickr

#11 – Too much love can be a bad thing

Some of the things we do to share pleasantries & affection as humans can be confusing to dogs. For example, when greeting someone it’s polite to look them in the eye and shake hands, embrace, or even lean in for a hug. But direct eye contact, leaning forward or reaching toward a dog could appear threatening, even giving the dog reason to believe he should defend himself. Greeting a dog should be done calmly and with no pressure put on the dog to “make friends.”

Image source: @BeckCochrane via Flickr

#12 –Getting in their face

We generally maintain a height advantage on our dogs…and often times when they are ignoring our requests we bend at the waist in an attempt to get down to their level and into their line of sight…like a parent might do with a child to show assertiveness. However, dogs use lowered body language to acquiesce, and believe it or not your dog is constantly reading your body language. Often times in attempts to be firm with your dog, your dog actually sees you as “soft.”

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Timing is everything…and see things from your dog’s perspective.

#13 – Forcing vs. training

Crate training is a very effective management technique for housebreaking, puppy education or a means for providing your dog a safe haven. However, many dog owners make the mistake of only using the crate to lock the dog up. If that door was slammed behind me every time, I wouldn’t want to go in there either! Encourage your dog to go into his crate (use small bits of treats or food or your dog’s favorite toy) leaving the door open for him to go in and come right back out multiple times daily so he doesn’t think the crate means “lock down.”

Image source: @Anneheathen via Flickr

#14 – After the fact never does anyone any good

Taking your dog back to “the scene of the crime” to punish them will only create confusion and little or no education for your dog. Dragging your dog over to a toileting accident, your chewed belongings, a hole dug in your garden, etc. and yelling will mean nothing to your dog if the outcome for the behavior wasn’t established at the time of the behavior. Manage your dog to avoid mistakes if you’re not there to educate at the right time.

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#15 – Too much talking

Avoid repeating commands. We often see dog owners asking their dogs to “sit…Sit…SIT…SIT!!!” – getting increasingly more assertive each time they say it, or pushing the dog’s butt to the ground…after that fourth request they finally let the dog know they mean it. Our belief is that the dog is thinking/learning, “OK, one ‘sit’ means nothing to me (because you taught me to do nothing) – you want me to put my butt on the ground when I hear sit…sit…sit…sit.” Spend time educating your dog to respond to your first request.

Image source: @BeckyCochrane via Flickr

#16 – Teasing is not appreciated by anyone

Some dog owners think it’s a good idea to pull their puppy’s food away occasionally, or to touch their dog while they’re eating to desensitize them around their food (or bones, treats, etc.). But, our belief is that doing so may more likely give your dog a reason to believe he should protect his food. Instead, let your dog always see you as a provider of, rather than a threat to his food source. Keep your dog’s food in a small container and put a bit in his bowl. When he finishes and looks up toward you, put in a bit more, incrementally, so your dog sees you as giving, giving, giving, never taking.

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