Today I’m going to talk about your dog playing you for a fool. It happens all the time, and there are a lot of dogs that are smart enough for it. Experts say that 90% of communication is nonverbal, and I totally believe that to be true. I think we as people learn nonverbal cues from others, and we don’t often recognize it. That’s still a big part of how we communicate. Dogs are the same: most of their communication, and most of their understanding of our communication, is nonverbal. They see patterns within our movements and words and interpret them. That allows us to train them, but it’s also what allows them to play us for fools sometimes.
Over twenty years ago, I saw a dog get corrected and immediately start limping. Its owner had given the dog a tug on the leash, not much, but I thought, “Oh no! The dog got hurt!” The trainer I was working for said, “No, he’s not hurt. Dogs will often pull up their paw to play their owners.” It’s a ver simple thing for a dog to do, and the owner will respond with sympathy. Dogs log that knowledge away and use it when they want an emotional response or when their owner is upset with them. They know how to change their owner’s tune.
We often teach our dogs to go to their beds and stay. The dog will often sit on their bed doing perfectly fine, but when the owner looks over they think that the dog looks sad. (Most of the time, I just think they look like they’re relaxing on their bed!) Sometimes the dog will actually make a sad face, because they know that will get their owner’s attention and make them feel good. That’s why dogs make those faces and cock their heads. They’re good at playing their owners. This sounds devious, right? But it’s the same kind of opportunistic thing that we pull all the time with our spouses, kids, and colleagues.
I could give you dozens of other examples—like whining or jumping on their owner—in order to play our emotions. Sometimes I even fall for it, because the dog is so darn cute! But it’s important not to fall for these tricks and to understand the communications our dogs are giving us. It can be tough to watch your dog pout and difficult to convince yourself that he’s actually fine. So here are some questions to ask yourself when these situations arise.
Is the dog in physical distress? Is he limping for real, or is he just in mental or emotional distress? Is he really struggling, or is he just trying to get his way? If the dog is playing and you give in, you’re setting yourself up for the wrong type of relationship. Imagine that your spouse were always trying to get your attention through little manipulative tactics. That’s not a healthy relationship for anyone. We understand that there are ethical implications behind that action, but the same isn’t true of our dogs. They’re just opportunistic.
So watch your dog—and don’t let him play you!