Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Talking to Dogs II: They Know When You're Lying

In the previous Talking to Dogs post, my argument was that it is never wrong to talk to your dog, quite the opposite. We humans have to verbalize our intentions to make them clear, so explaining to your dog that everything is all right and you’ll be back soon, will, although they won’t understand the words, probably soothe and reassure them. As you are saying the words, you make the feeling clear to yourself, and dogs feel that. As long as you are telling the truth.

By the same token, if you tell your dogs something you don’t fully mean, they will pick up on it. They’re not listening to your words, but to your feelings. Oliver Sacks in his famous The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat points out the similarity between dogs and people with aphasia. Aphasiacs have, usually through brain damage, lost their ability to recognize language. That is, the pure, verbal system of words. Many aphasiacs nevertheless understand most of what is being said to them, because they are still able to read the non-verbal parts of human speech. And these parts are considerable. Sacks writes:

Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily...

We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose - to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we - so susceptible to words - cannot trust our own instincts.

Indeed, as I argued before, us humans are so susceptible to words that they are necessary to our process of thinking and understanding. We swallow lies because we are seduced by words, unless we deliberately pay attention to non-verbal cues, which is very hard to do. Sometimes we can even make ourselves believe lies, our’s and other’s, by repeating them enough. If you say something enough times it becomes the truth, just have a look at politics and media.

However, if you say something to our dogs that we don’t believe, they won’t believe you either. Dogs are not listening to your words, but reading your intentions. This is something that is worth remembering when training dogs or trying to modify their behaviour.

I am having real difficulties stopping Eddie from barking at, and trying to chase cats. I tell him off, sharply, every time he does it. My admonitions have limited effect, though, both in the heat of the moment, and long term. He won’t let those cats alone. Yes, he is a greyhound and his chasing instinct is strong, so it is a difficult task, but there is, I think something more going on here. I have had to admit to myself, that I actually quite like his behaviour towards cats.

There is something in my view of dogs that naturally includes the idea that they chase cats. This, to my mind, is what dogs do. I expect it has something to do with all those Tom & Jerry cartoons I watched as a child, my parents attitude to cats, and so on and so forth. Wherever it comes form, it is clearly some kind of deep-seated belief. I know rationally that it isn’t a good idea for Eddie to chase cats, but somehow I cannot make myself feel it, and I think that Eddie, however much I tell him off for barking at cats, can sense it. He simply knows that I don’t fully mean it.

I think this issue is evident in a lot of dog-owners who appear to be telling their dogs off for some anti-social behaviour, such as barking at visitors or showing aggression to other dogs, but with little effect. Deep inside, and I expect this goes back to our evolutionary history with dogs, we like our dogs defending our property and persons. Whether we think we are “that kind” of dog owner or not, a strong dog exhibiting good guarding or hunting instincts appears beneficial to our survival instinct. As Sacks says, we use our dogs to pick up falsehood or malice.

Equally, owners scalding their dogs for minor misdemeanors or mishaps often don’t really really mean it. We are often so deeply emotionally attached to our canine companions that a little chewing or peeing on the carpet is by the by. And they know it. Our dogs need us, but we, maybe even more, also need them, and this makes correcting undesired behaviour difficult. How can you persuade a creature which can read your feelings like an open book, that you are really quite cross, when you – and they – know this will all be forgotten and forgiven in five minutes time.

Sometimes the problem lies not just in the fact that we don’t mean what we say. I find my dogs are a lot less attentive to my commands when I am distracted, tired or feeling low or insecure. They sense when the intention behind my words is less determined than usual and quickly take advantage of it. Communicating with and training dogs takes a lot of energy, precisely because it is not simply about saying the words. One also needs to project the intentions behind the words clearly and strongly. If you’d rather be a at home with a cup of tea than in a field with your dog, they'll know it.

There are two potential solutions to this problem. We can work on convincing ourselves – and I do think that changing our attitudes often plays a great part in successful modification of problem behaviour in dogs. The old platitude that it is the humans that have to be trained, rather than the dog, means precisely this: we have to change our feelings and beliefs in order for the dog to change a behaviour that responds to these feelings and beliefs. I want to talk a bit more about this elsewhere, but needless to say it is often easier said than done to change ingrained attitudes in ourselves.

Another way is to use appropriate training tools and techniques, which allow you to strengthen the message you want to give your dog. Treats as well as corrections external to your voice and body language work this way. For example, you are unlikely to make your dog feel fully rewarded by your voice only – pats and morsels of food are also needed. A bit of sausage never lies, even when you’re ready to give up and go home.

With Eddie and his cats, as I have said elsewhere, I have started using a spray collar. This type of corrective training tools should be used with caution, as they are not suitable for all dogs. However, with Eddie it allows me to support my “lie” that I want him to stop chasing that cat, in a very immediate and effective way.

Ultimately we have to do a bit of both: work on ourselves and the use the right tools and methods. Importantly, however, I think we need to be aware of our own lies. There is no use in pretending that I am terribly upset when Eddie barks at yet another cat. However, rationally I know I can’t allow him to do this at his leisure, so I know that I need to use other means than telling him no, half-heartedly. Dogs know when you’re lying, and they tell you when you are, sometimes when you don’t even know it yourself.


houndstooth said...

Hmmm... I am pretty sure I mean it when I tell Morgan that I don't appreciate her barking. I have to ponder this a bit!

E.A. said...

Hello houndstooth,

You have a point, and I have been thinking: obviously the verbal commands we give our dogs are only part of the puzzle of what lies behind a behaviour.
I wonder what non-verbal cues Morgan is getting from you and from her environment to make her continue barking. She is a german shepherd right? So she has quiet a high protective instinct. (Like Eddie has a high prey instinct which also contributes to his cat addiction).
I don't know why she's braking but perhaps you or someone else are contradicting the verbal cues - feeling nervous (if she is protecting or alerting you), or inciting to play (if that's why she's barking), or whatever.
Maybe though, there is a stronger stimulus in her environment - people / animals / thing she can see or CAN'T see that she feels she needs to bark at or that sort of thing?
I'm curious.

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