Why Dogs Don’t Understand Language

The Dog’s Perspective

Funnily enough, our furry friends don’t comprehend English. While this might not come as a surprise, there’s a lot about human language that dogs simply don’t grasp. Unlike humans, dogs lack the ability to process language and derive multiple meanings from a single word. Their brains aren’t wired for language conceptualization, and they lack a verbal decoder in their prefrontal cortex. Imagine how perplexing it is for a dog to navigate through the various interpretations of the word “down”: lie on the floor, get off the couch, remove paws from my leg, or any other reflexive situation.

The Importance of Consistency in Training

Consistency is vital when training our canine companions. Whether it’s teaching cues or commands, it’s crucial to ensure that each signal has a singular meaning. By providing consistent and clear instructions, we prevent confusion and help our dogs understand what we expect from them.

A Personal Example

Let me share a personal anecdote to highlight the significance of consistency in dog training. It took me years to teach my dog, Valenzia, how to retrieve. Not only did she lack any natural inclination to pick up objects, but she had also endured physical punishment in the past for showing interest in things humans held. Teaching her to retrieve involved a lengthy process of shaping behaviors, starting with rewarding her for nose-touches, then progressing to nose-touches with an open mouth, mouth contact, and finally, picking up objects. It was a time-consuming journey, but the reward was a strong reinforcement history for Valenzia when it came to picking up items.

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The Excitement of a New Behavior

Once Valenzia mastered the retrieve, we were both thrilled to have a new and exciting behavior to enjoy. I would ask her to retrieve random objects in the house, using the informal cue “get it.” This cue loosely meant “pick up the nearest object on the floor.” Valenzia delighted in this game and would bring me everything from her Kong toys, which I would stuff with food as a reward, to pieces of trash, which she could exchange for a treat as a way of practicing object exchanges and preventing resource guarding.

The Unexpected Surprise

One evening, Valenzia suddenly became fixated on something hidden under my bed. Curiosity got the better of me, and I casually asked, “What are you looking for?” (Yes, I talk to my dogs.) However, due to her past punishment experiences, Valenzia immediately jumped back, fearing that she had done something wrong. I wanted to reassure her that she was allowed to continue searching, so without thinking, I said, “It’s okay. Get it!”

A Misunderstood Cue

Valenzia blinked at me for a moment and then started frantically searching for something to retrieve. She prodded the storage boxes, but they were too large. There was a basket filled with items, making it unsuitable. After scanning the area a few times, she seized a sock from the nearby laundry pile and presented it to me with a questioning gaze that seemed to ask, “I know I’m not supposed to chew on clothes, but is this what you want?”

Capturing the Moment

Naturally, I grabbed my phone and recorded this moment for posterity. It was a testament to Valenzia’s eagerness to please and the unintended consequences of our words.

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Celebrating Success

Following this unexpected turn of events, we played more games of retrieving, with dog biscuit pieces as rewards. After all, Valenzia had done precisely what I had unknowingly asked of her.

Please note: The title of this article, “The rat is always right,” is a well-known mantra coined by B.F. Skinner. It suggests that training subjects only behave according to what they have been explicitly taught. If an animal responds differently than expected, it likely means that the trainer hasn’t effectively communicated the desired behavior.

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