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Lost in Translation
Article By: Glenn Redmond

Early in my career, while in Vancouver, I worked for a training company located on a busy street in the Point Grey area. A large window at the front allowed pedestrians to observe dogs being trained in obedience and agility. A small crowd would often gather, unable to resist the draw of all the animal antics. As distracting as it was for me as a trainer, you could not argue with the advertising power of that window. One guy in particular, no more than 20 years old, with a young yellow Lab was a frequent spectator. He always held a large tug toy, which his dog worked tirelessly trying to get a hold of. Before long, we met face to face and would often chat for 5 minutes or so a few times a week. Oddly enough, we rarely spoke about dogs, so I questioned if I was overstepping boundaries in my desire to address his dog's increasing inappropriate mouthing behavior. The silence gene, having eluded me from birth, dictated my decision as I expressed my concern that this playful game of tug was laying the foundation for aggression. My words were not met with disdain, but rather a friendly dismissal as he explained that he and his friends played tug with the dog all the time and the that dog had never been aggressive to anybody. I broached the subject a few times after, which pretty much ended his visits. After all, who wants to listen to a broken record?

Roughly 6 months later however, he popped into the shop with tears in his eyes. His dog had lacerated the ear of one of his friends, and his parents wanted the dog put down. It is unfortunate that it took an injury to his friend's ear for his ear to open. His dog was not a bad dog, just a misguided one, now in trouble for what he had been taught to do - bite with his mouth enthusiastically.

The reality is that dogs do not come pre-programmed to behave as society expects them to. They only know what we have or have not taught them. The problem is humans and dogs have different communication systems, creating many misunderstandings between the two species. It is miscommunication that lays the foundation for aggressive behavior.

We humanize our animals, expecting them to master the English language and understand everything we say just because we said it. Gary Larson captured this perfectly in his cartoon entitled "What Dogs Hear," "Blah, blah, blah, Jake." Dogs are operating on a plane of body language and believe me, they have mastered this. Most of our human body language, as perceived by the dog, stands in direct contrast to the words we speak. Consider this: a young dog tests the waters by growling slightly over a toy. You withdraw slightly as you say the word "No" thinking that you are addressing the behavior. The dog is actually rewarded because he has moved you back. A dog does not have a conscience and will not think about it later and feel bad. That's a human emotion and one that should not be projected onto the dog.

The aforementioned window was great for business, but such environmental factors also create horrible dynamics for our dogs. Again, in a well intentioned act of misunderstanding, we give our dogs full access, often putting their bed right by the big bay window. In reality, we have given the dog the best view to protect the den from all intruders. People passing the house inadvertently deepen the dog's desire and confidence in this duty, rewarding the aggressive barking with each passing step.

From a dog's point of view, there is always a reason for aggressive behavior. A person may approach a dog, extending a friendly hand, but the dog may perceive the friendly gesture as threatening or intimidating and act accordingly, the same way we would if we felt threatened. Not understanding what communication just happened, we attach labels like vicious or crazy to the dog's behavior while failing to analyze our own.

If dogs could speak, they would vent about the lies that humans tell. Yet, dogs remain so loyal. We would not be so gracious in accepting such dishonesty from a friend.

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