Sometimes, knowing what your dog needs or wants is as simple as watching their behavior. Repeated patterns in dog behavior are excellent indicators of what they need from us, provided you know what to look for.
Dogs have been a part of human community for thousands of years. They watch our body language for informational cues on what we want from them, and will often emulate our behavior in an attempt at understanding and communication. More than anything else, they want to work with us. If we pay attention to what they are saying, the rewards can be tremendous, and your canine will thank you for your perceptiveness in ways you never thought possible.
Let's talk about a few common behavioral cues our canines use to communicate information.
1. The stare.
This one is hard to miss unless you're really deeply engrossed in something other than your dog. Most dog owners are familiar with the 'stare' from their dog. Whether it be an empty water dish, a blocked thoroughfare, or something out of place, your dog will attempt to make eye contact with you while standing near to the object or thing they're trying to bring your attention to. You may also see a foot stomp, shifting weight from foot to food, and it is often done silently. Sometimes your dog will even lie down next to what they want. The most common one we see here with our dogs Indy and Gus is attention brought to the water bowl. And yet, the way each dog brings our attention to the bowl is different. Indy will stare and pace at the low or empty water bowl until one of us fills it. Gus, on the other hand, will sit nearby the bowl while he stares, and then lie down next to it.
Their gratefulness each time we catch this behavioral indicator and give them what they are asking for is as clear as day. Leaping to their feet, wagging their tails (or nubs in Indy's case), and smiling are all great signs that your dog is very happy to have communicated effectively and well with you in a way that you understand.
2. The point.
The point is an extremely interesting canine behavior. Used to bring our attention to something with a sense of urgency, the point is one of the most clever way a dog has of saying, "Hey, look at this!" While it is rarely done in terms of needing something (in this case, dogs will often use the 'stare'), the point should never be ignored. If your dog is finding something interesting enough to point at it with nose, foot, and a forward lean, it is probably worth your attention.
3. Potty time language.
There are numerous cues our dogs give us to let us know they've got to use the bathroom. Owners are generally hypervigilant about looking for these indicators. No one wants their dog or puppy to go the bathroom inside the house, yet time and time again, potty training eludes even the most experienced owners. Here are some cues to look for, from the very obvious to the not-so-clear, that indicate your dog needing to use the bathroom.
First, and most commonly, the nose to the ground. This one indicates a dog looking for the best place to use the bathroom. How a dog chooses this is the subject for much debate, but there's no denying it - a dog with his or her nose to the ground consistently, with a scuttling movement of the body, is a sure beacon of the bodily functions to come.
Second, the back door stand. This is an easy one to spot if you're paying attention, and most pet owners are extremely grateful for such a clear cue that their dog needs to go outside. For those of us that live in high-rise apartments where a backyard is not readily available, this cue is often elusive. Read along for other cues you may not have realized indicate your dog's need to use the bathroom.
Third, the ear scratch. We hadn't seen this one before in relation to needing to use the bathroom until we got our Cocker Spaniel, Gus. He will scratch his ears in a playful sort of way, repeatedly, until we get up and head for the backyard. We're lucky, once we figured out that this is what Gus meant when he began the ear scratch in a particular way (sitting in front of us, looking at us directly, and always scratching the right ear) we know right away when he needs to go. Nice work Gus!
Finally, impetuous pacing and whining are good signs that your dog needs to go. It never hurts, in the presence of these behaviors, to take your dog outside and to be sure that he or she does, or doesn't, need to use the bathroom.
4. The muzzle grab.
I find the muzzle grab to be one of the most interesting, informative pieces of canine behavior available. The muzzle grab involves complex issues like pack placement, behavior control, and submission in dogs and puppies. Adult dogs will muzzle grab their puppies to control a bite that is too hard, behavior that is too rambunctious, and to reinforce a puppy's place in the hierarchy of the pack in general. In adult dogs, the muzzle grab has the same function but with more serious and complex implications. A dog that is unsure of his or her placement in the pack will 'offer up' their muzzle to a dog that they believe has seniority. This senior dog will then place his or her mouth around the muzzle of the uncertain one. Following this, the lower-ranking canine will immediately lick the mouth of the senior dog and then slide into a slumping sit, often rolling over onto their backs as though to say, "Gotcha. Whatever you say, boss." What's more, the muzzle grab is extremely useful for humans as a way of letting your dog know his or her place in hierarchy of the family pack. If you have a dog that likes to inappropriately mouth, wrestle, or lick your hand in an attempt to garner your attention, a gentle hand around the snoot lets that dog know that you're in control of the situation.
5. Attention seeking.
As a final point, I'd like to talk about the ways our dogs try to get our attention. Often misconstrued as misbehavior, a dog that is feeling neglected or simply in need of some affection will often look to articles of clothing and other valuables their human wears or uses frequently. Their association with those items most often has to do with smell - the stronger the items smell of you, the human dog-parent, the more likely the dog will choose those items to get our attention. This is why socks and underwear are such a favorite item for dogs to hold in their mouths. Not only do they smell like us, but nine times out of ten, we will get up, remove the item from the dog's mouth or paws, and scold the dog for the trouble. What's missed is what your dog is trying to communicate to you with this behavior. "Please, please pay attention to me." Remember, even negative attention is still attention, and your dog will do whatever it takes to get it. Like us, they are social creatures, and need our interaction on a regular basis.
Any time I see my Cocker Spaniel Gus with a sock of mine, I go to him, gently remove the item and spend at least five minutes scratching his ear, his belly, and telling him what a good boy he is. During these times, most often Gus gets sick of me before I him, and will wander off to find a cool spot on the floor to lay down and pass out. I'm grateful that he tells me when he needs my attention, and I am sure to give it to him. As a result, we have a fulfilling, loving, and fun relationship. I trust Gus to tell me what he needs, and he trusts me to listen.
Thousands of years of community, learning our behaviors and physical/verbal cues in order to co-habitate with us have made our dogs experts in predicting what we want and expect. Let's repay the favor and do the same for them.
Food is one of the most important and useful tools in any dog owner's arsenal when training their dog, whether it be a new puppy or a new rescue. There is no quicker or more surefire way to get your dog's attention than to offer him or her a smelly, tasty treat. Positive reinforcement training absolutely relies on food rewards to draw out the appropriate behavior from most dogs and put it on cue, which is exactly what we, as dog owners want. Right?
In fact, it's not as straightforward as that. Food rewards, while extremely useful, can also cause difficulty for you and your canine. Particularly if they are not removed from training when your puppy is entering adolescence and adulthood. In the case of rescues, food rewards become problematic when they are used exclusively as a training method.
I'm going to talk about some of the reasons why it is critically important that you remove the promise of food from your interactions with your dog over time. I'm also going to explain to you how to do it.
What happens when we don't remove the food reward from our training and behavioral interactions with our dog? The answer depends on a few factors. The most important thing to understand when using food to train your dog is that the behaviors you are putting on cue may not be reliable in the absence of the food itself.
Let's look at one example. Imagine that you're in the dog park with your dog, having some social time with the other neighbourhood canines. Next thing you know, someone enters the dog park and leaves the gate wide open behind them. Excited by the entry of a new dog and person to the park, your dog speeds over to say hello. Sure enough, on the other side of the gate is another dog, this time on-leash. You reach into your pocket to pull out a treat to lure your dog back to your side except this time, you're wearing a different jacket. You find yourself with no treats available.
The danger is clear. If your dog makes it through that gate before a) the person who just entered clues in and closes it, and b) doesn't respond to your verbal command to return, you may be spending the next hour chasing him or her down. Let's look at another potential example.
You're having company. Someone entering the front door leaves it open a little longer than necessary and your dog slips out, across the yard and onto the sidewalk. The street is heavy with traffic. Perhaps you're aware of your dog slipping out right away and follow after - but again, you find yourself without a treat. Returning to the house to get one means you're taking your eyes off your dog for a good two or three minutes. You shout to your dog to come back, and he does. At least, part way. But upon sniffing the air around you, realizes you don't have a treat for him/her and takes off again for the street, tail wagging, having a great time.
The danger here is the traffic. And the fact that nothing is standing between it and your dog.
Some other issues that arise when food rewards are not phased out of our interactions with our dogs:
Obesity/extra weight. Being overweight causes a tremendous amount of discomfort for your dog, from painful joints, to lack of flexibility, inability to exercise for even short periods of time, lethargy, diabetes, stress on all internal organs, heart disease, increased blood pressure, digestive disorders, skin and hair problems, and decreased length and quality of life.
Scavenging. Dogs that are well-used, over a long period of time, to constant food reinforcement in terms of providing wanted or "good" behavior will often resort to aggressive scavenging when those rewards are not made readily available. This scavenging may take place in the home or when outside, on walks, or in the dog park. In a nutshell, every single time your dog sniffs even the slightest whiff of something that may be even partially edible, they're going to go for it quickly, sneakily, and aggressively. A dog used to the constant availability of food may also become aggressive about their food around other animals and humans. Thankfully, food aggression is generally a quick fix. If you have a food aggressive dog, seek out the help of a trainer right away.
So how do we make sure that our dog is going to listen to the commands we've put on cue with food when there isn't any food available?
In the dog training world, we call this process 'proofing'. Proofing doesn't only concern the removal of food rewards, but rather refers to the entire process of introducing distractions and different scenarios to your dog while putting the behavior we want on cue.
The first part of proofing in this instance is the removal of the food lure. To do this, start slow. You don't want to completely throw off your dog.
Start by going through the usual commands you use with your dog at any given time. Instead of giving a treat for each request your dog completes correctly, only give your dog a treat for every other request done correctly. Feel free to alternate the with your dog's favorite toy, stuffed animal, or a good scratch behind the ears. After a few iterations of this (also be sure to rotate your commands. You want at least three so that your dog cannot predict or preempt your next request), only offer the treat every third request. Continue like this until your dog does exactly what you ask within a few seconds of the request, and until you're not using treats at all. As you gradually pull back the treats, be sure to ramp up the verbal reinforcement. "Good boy/girl! Well done! What a good dog you are!" and the like will let your dog know just how happy you are with him/her. Using hand signals as well (consistency is key!) will give your dog an extra leg up in understanding exactly what you want from him/her.
The more fun you bring to training your dog, the more fun your dog will have. And because it will keep you and your furry companion keen and interested, you'll soon find that having fun with your dog is the best reinforcement of all.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.