Today I’d like to share my story about a bad haircut and how it relates to your dog training. (It does, I promise!)
Right now I’m in Savannah, Georgia for my bother’s wedding. I never bring a razor with me when I travel, so I really needed to shave and my hair was getting long. Now, I’ve been shaving my head by myself for about twenty years. I’m a pretty utilitarian guy. I wear Carhartt shirts every day and try to keep everything simple without fuss or maintenance, so I hadn’t been in a barber’s chair in twenty years.
But yesterday, I went to a barber shop. Not only was I in a place I hadn’t been in a long time, but everyone had a deep southern accent and I was the only white guy in an African-American barber shop. They had different words for everything, and I couldn’t understand what was going on from a linguistic, cultural, or contextual perspective. The barber kept asking me about my sideburns, and I didn’t know what he was saying so I just said “yes.” Needless to say, I don’t have sideburns anymore! Even though I realize that my hair hadn’t changed that much, I left the shop thinking that I looked a lot different than usual. It got me thinking about my dogs.
Like humans, dogs learn based on patterns. My pattern for haircutting has been the same for twenty years. If that pattern is thrown off even a little—by not knowing a few words, not understanding barber terminology—and suddenly I get a haircut I didn’t want. Our dogs also have needs and desires, and they ask for them in the only ways they now how. Sometimes this is through barking and getting aggressive, sometimes it’s jumping and becoming destructive, sometimes it’s ignoring you. We don’t share a common language with our dogs. It’s hard for them to ask us for the things they need.
Since they don’t know our language, they’ll often try to ask in theirs. This can look like behavior problems, or just like the dog is being a jerk. That’s probably not the case. Even though they’re very smart, our dogs will never completely understand us. They can pick up on our patterns, but they’re also self-centered like us. So it behooves us to figure out their language. We can’t expect them to rise to our level of cognizance, so it’s up to us to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.
My bad barber shop experience is exactly what dogs feel every day—unless we make an effort to set a baseline for communication with them. Your dog won’t figure out that communication. It’s up to you.