Sending Your Dog Mixed Messages

Dog Mixed Messages

Dog behavior problems are frequently the result of unclear communication. The owner may not even be aware that the messages he is sending to the dog are confusing. The owner of a well-trained Standard Poodle was unaware of her confusing messages during an epic long session of grooming. The Poodle tired and attempted to sit. The owner, wanting the dog to remain standing, yelled “Don’t sit.” The dog stood for a few seconds in a crouched position, and, confused about what the word “don’t” meant, tried to sit again. Totally perplexed, he was trying very hard to comply with what he thought was his owner’s request.

Good communication with your dog is comprised of clear, consistent, distinct messages. A dog cannot possibly respond correctly if the vocabulary or the rules change at whim from day to day. Another example of inconsistent, mixed messages is demonstrated by the owner who allows a behavior occasionally, punishes the dog for it at other times, and does not use distinct cues to inform the dog when the conduct is not acceptable.

A dog who is petted for jumping up when the owner arrives home from softball practice is going to be encouraged, to the owner’s dismay and anger, to jump up when the owner comes home from a party all dressed up. Unfortunately, few dogs are able to distinguish between the owner’s softball jump up clothes and the owner’s party stay off clothes. Consequently, without any distinct warning, the dog may receive a swat for jumping up on the wrong clothes. The dog learns that jumping up will sometimes be rewarded by petting and other times, for no apparent reason, will elicit a smack.

The only lesson a dog may learn from inconsistent messages is that the rules are unstable. Clear and consistent communication requires that an owner teach a command for each desired and undesired behavior to inform the dog about acceptable behavior. For example, you can teach a jump up command that tells/the dog jumping up is acceptable, and another command such as, “off” that instructs him not to jump up. When messages are confusing, the dog can neither establish a pattern to earn the owner’s approval, nor predict the owner’s reactions. The dog who cannot establish a way to earn his owner’s approval gives up trying to please. The dog who does not know how to predict his owner’s reactions becomes fearful, mistrusting, and avoidant.