“My dog is stubborn.”
“My dog knows ‘sit’ but he only does it when he wants to.”
‘My dog doesn’t listen.”
These are all common sentences I get from clients. They want clear communication with their dog, and they are not achieving that so it must be the dog’s fault.
What we think of as stubborn or a dog that is mad at us is often a dog that just has no idea what we want. We may think our instructions are clear. But, if the creature we are speaking to doesn’t understand the instructions, then it appears the creature is uncooperative.
Let me share my experience at the office of an eye surgeon. I have a macular hole in my right eye. This is a small break in the macula. The macula provides the sharp, central vision we need for reading, driving, and seeing fine detail. To correct this issue, surgery is needed in which a gas bubble is inserted in my eye to stabilize the hole.
I’m already stressed just being there. The thought of surgery is scary and thinking about someone cutting into my eye and inserting a gas bubble is causing me much angst.
The eye technician had to do many tests before I met with the specialist. I am certain this woman went home and complained about how uncooperative I was and how I could not follow even the simplest of instructions. I am sure she said, “she knew what I was asking her to do, she just didn’t do it.” Sounds familiar right?
She also most likely called me angry as I ended up saying something to her in a harsh voice, which is totally not like me. I am generally very cooperative and eager to please. I want people to like me.
How did this happen?
I was already stressed walking into the room. My brain was going a hundred miles an hour thinking of all the “what ifs.” I was having difficulty processing the instructions for the tests because I was having difficulty keeping my focus and not thinking “what if.” There were a lot of tests requiring precise instructions in order to do them correctly. I am an A student. I want to ace any test. But I wasn’t sure what the scoring was or what the tests were showing, so I had no idea if I was doing the tests correctly or if they were showing something bad about my eyesight. What if I was going blind?
The longer this went on, the more difficult it was for me to process the information and to understand the nuances of the technician’s language.
My right eye can’t see well at all right now and it stresses me. She was trying to find out exactly what I could see by showing me lines of letters. I couldn’t see the letters clearly enough to tell what they were. I explained that when I had been to my own eye doctor a few weeks ago I had to get to the second largest line, but instead of starting there, she went up from the bottom and I kept having to say I couldn’t make out the letters clearly. Every line was “what about this line?” Finally, she said “are you sure you can’t make out anything on this line?” I wanted to please her, so I squinted hard and said “maybe an A.” She said, “good can you read anything else on that line?” I was encouraged by the “good”, so I ventured “L.”
“I’ll take it,” she replied.
I let out a huge sigh. I got it right. She was pleased with my performance.
Then she said again, “I’ll take it.” Now I’m confused. The second time she said, “I’ll take it”, her voice sounded harsh. I perceived her as unhappy with me. What had I done wrong? She reached her hand toward me, which made me flinch back and said “I’ll take it” in very enunciated language as if maybe I just was not understanding her. Then she said, “I’ll take the glasses.” I was using what could be described as opera glasses to look at the lines on the screen. The device covered one eye, so the exposed eye was what was taking the test. When she said “I’ll take it” she meant she wanted me to give her the glasses.
I could tell by her body langue that she was super irritated with me, which stressed me out even more. She gave me back the device and did another test with it. She asked me to flip down a tab on the side. Her only instructions were “see the tab on the side? Flip it down.”
I did that. It turns out there were two ways I could have flipped it down; to either the right or the left. I chose right. She said, “Flip it down so it covers the eye hole.” Yikes, I was doing everything wrong. I thought I understood what she was asking me to do, but I clearly wasn’t.
Finally, we got to the questions portion of the testing. I thought I would surely do better on this.
Question one: When did you have your Lasik surgery?
Answer: I am not 100 percent sure, 8 to 10 years ago.
Question: You don’t know when you had the surgery?
Question Who did the surgery?
Answer: I can’t remember.
Question: you have no idea who did your surgery?
Answer: No, I only met them once.
What my brain is doing: Oh my God. I can’t remember. By her tone she is implying I should remember, and other people remember so I must be stupid. Am I stupid? Do I have a memory issue? Am I going blind and having a memory issue?
Question: Did you bring you reading glasses?
Question: You did not bring your reading glasses?
Answer: I followed every instruction I was given. My instructions were to bring my photo ID, my insurance card and my sunglasses. I was not asked to bring my glasses.
I said the above in a much harsher tone than I would normally use. I snapped at this woman. I immediately gave a weak smile toward her and dipped my head down. I wanted her to know I didn’t want to hurt her or take this argument further. I needed her to just back off a bit.
It was now time for the eye drops to dilate my eyes. Have you seen the movie A Clockwork Orange? There is a scene where a man has his eyes forced open and must watch horrible things. He can’t close his eyes. Her fingers were like that. My head was pushed back in a head rest and she had her fingers vice gripping my eyes open and dropping eye drops in. She got a second bottle and did more drops and as soon as the second liquid hit my right eye I jumped and took a deep breath because it hurt.
“That second one may sting” she said as she walked away.
If two people speaking a common language can’t even understand each other, think about what your dog must be experiencing if you are asking him to do something he really doesn’t understand or doesn’t understand in the context you are asking the question.
You ask the dog to sit, he doesn’t do it, so you ask him again as if maybe he just wasn’t understanding you the first time. Like the technician questioning me again every time I answered no when she thought I should be saying yes. That was frustrating and it is frustrating for your dog as he understands he got something wrong by your body language and voice. He isn’t being willfully disobedient. He is not sitting because he didn’t process the information in the way you think he did. Maybe you haven’t explained the question as clearly as you think you did or maybe there is so much going on around you, the dog isn’t able to hear your question the same way he might when nothing else is going on around you.
If your dog walks away from you or snaps or growls at you. He is not being a bad dog. He is being a very frustrated or very scared dog. If you keep scaring or frustrating him, he won’t get better, he will get worse. Instead, take a step (or 10) back and find out where your dog can work with you again. Can you make the problem easier for the dog to understand?
Often people say, “he knew he was wrong because he immediately came back and licked my face.” This is often an appeasing type of gesture. The same ones I gave to the technician: a smile and loose body language. It is the dog’s polite way of saying he doesn’t want this to escalate, but he needs you to know that this is all very stressful and to please stop doing whatever it is.
Then what if you punish the dog by doing something that hurts or scares him such as yelling at him, hitting him or pushing him? Kind of like me getting the scary eye drops I didn’t know where going to hurt. At that point I was done trying to please this woman or take her stupid tests. I wanted out of there.
Instead she left me in a time out. She said the dilation would take about 10 minutes and then the doctor would be in to see me. I tried a weak smile as she left, and she looked back and said, “you have to close your eyes for the dilation to really work” and shut the door.
I am now in a room with my eyes shut freaking out over the last half hour of stressors. I could certainly use something to occupy my mind. Maybe some music? Or someone periodically coming in to ask how I am doing. Was there a time limit I was supposed to keep my eyes closed and how do I know when it is up if I can’t see a clock?
By the time the eye doctor entered the room, I had to use all my will power not to either bolt out the door or burst into tears.
And he asks me AGAIN who did my Lasik surgery and when it was. I STILL don’t know the answer. And it turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with my macular hole. He told me that was just bad luck and old age.
He takes as bunch of equipment and puts it close into my face and starts calling out numbers to another technician sitting in a corner and she starts inputting those numbers. I don’t know what the numbers mean. Are they good numbers or bad numbers? I am practically shaking by the time he is done and says, “well other than the hole, your eyes are healthy.”
By the time we get to the point of setting up a surgery I am so ready to leave that I practically run out the door.
I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to work with those people again. They gave me no incentive to cooperate. Their questions were not clear (to me) and I repeatedly was exposed to pain or uncertainty.
That same day I worked with a dog that had a very hard time concentrating. I was trying to see if he could target my hand. He did great at first until he suddenly started backing away from me every time, I presented my hand. The more I worked with him, the farther he backed away. No matter how I asked the question “do you want to touch my hand?” he said, “this makes me nervous.”
I learned the dog had gone through repeated medical treatments in which the owner had used treats to get the dog to come into stressful situations.
I immediately stopped asking the dog to target my hand. Instead I tossed out a toy and rewarded him if he looked at the toy, then rewarded him for stepping closer to the toy and then touching the toy. In less than 5 minutes he was repeatedly touching his nose to the toy. So, he understood we were playing a game and what the rules were, but he was telling me he did not trust the outcome of the game when I wanted him to touch my hand. He had already learned that some body positions meant something scary was about to happen to him.
The next time you think, “my dog is bad” or “my dog is stubborn” consider finding a new way to ask the dog the question you think he is not answering correctly. Are you sure he understood the question? Did a lot of stressful things happen to him that day? Is there a lot going on in the environment around you? You may be 100 percent sure the dog understood what you meant but if you get the wrong answer, the dog is most likely answering the question he thought you asked.