We live in the country.  As such, our son Jordan takes the bus to school.  It did not take our dog Kip long to realize that every morning the big yellow bus came along and whisked his friend away.  Then, every day at the same time, the big yellow bus brought him back home.

Kip at windowAs the clock neared four o’clock, I found myself asking Kip, “Where’s Jordan”?  Kip came to know that his best friend would be home soon.  Perking his ears, he would leap to attention and vault onto the chair that sat beneath our dining room window.  Paws on the window ledge, he cocked his head to get a clear view of the road, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the bus.

When the bus finally arrived, he would carefully peer at each child.  Five boys in total would get off the bus at our stop.  He always knew, even at a distance, “That one is Jordan!”  His body would wiggle with overt happiness.

It did not surprise me that Kip would readily learn the meaning of repeated expressions.  He is a smart dog.  Kip just seemed to know what I meant.  When I said, “Where’s Jordan,” he knew…absolutely knew his friend was coming home.

One P.D. day, the days when children have no school, I began chatting away to Kip.  Yes, I absolutely do talk to my dog.  I asked if he was happy to have Jordan home.  I asked, “Where’s Jordan?”

Immediately, Kip ran to the chair under the window.  Jordan was sitting there reading a book.  He leapt up on the chair.  His back legs on Jordan’s lap, his front paws on the windowsill; he cocked his head and scanned the street left and right looking for the big yellow bus.

He looked for the bus while standing right on top of Jordan.  It seems that Kip did not actually know the meaning of, “Where’s Jordan.”  I was mistaken and presumed far too much.

Dog owners often complain that their dogs know obedience commands and house rules.  They say, “He KNOWS sit, but he won’t do it.”

Assuming that a dog knows the meaning of a phrase or word implies that the dog is refusing to obey.  Labelled as stubborn, defiant and dominant, owners start looking for ways to make the dog submit and obey.  It opens the door to a wide array of concocted punishments to ensure the dog obeys the commands that it supposedly knows.  Plenty of dog training methods feed into these notions perpetuating needless discipline.

It is a darn shame, because miscommunication happens frequently.  People misunderstand each other all the time and we have the distinct advantage of speaking a common language.  I can send my husband to the store for buttermilk only to receive butter and milk!  Is it not likely that dogs would misunderstand?  We are different species with very different communication styles.

Dogs misunderstand for many reasons.  Sometimes, a dog’s actions are misinterpreted – just as I misunderstood Kip’s reaction to, “Where’s Jordan.”  Other dogs notice subtle gestures instead of learning verbal commands.  For example, a finger pointed at the ground overshadows the command “down.”  There are other dogs that perform their entire repertoire of skills:  sit; down; stand; shake a paw; rollover; play dead.  They continue until they happen upon the correct response.

Unless we test our dog’s comprehension, we run the risk of assuming too much.  While it may feel intimidating to take responsibility for our dog’s misbehaviour, this is exactly what great teachers do.  They leave ego at the door.  There is no blame and no guilt.  Owners feel relief knowing their dogs are not stubborn, status seeking adversaries.  Rather, training issues are just a simple misunderstanding.

Stop for a minute when about to say, “He knows….”.Test those assumptions.  Then test them again.  Miscommunication is a common problem and a very easy fix.