talking to dogs

It would be magical to talk to animals in their own language! And some people think they can.

You’re not a dog 🙁 And trying to pretend you are, leads to really bad training advice!

And your dog does not think you’re a dog.

So much bad animal training advice comes out of people who think that we can treat animals as their mama or siblings treat them in order to effect behavior change.

Pack theory and dominance theory are not only based on principles that have been disproven, but they are based on a notion that our dogs will understand us to be other, more powerful dogs, in their universe.

But we don’t have dog bodies and can’t use the same body language they use. We don’t have tails or dog ears they use to express themselves. We don’t move like dogs. We don’t smell like dogs. We don’t sound like dogs even if we try to make their noises.

Thinking we can be perceived as dogs, leads to great mischief

Nothing below is designed as advice nor does it substitute for a training program. Some issues like puppy biting are pretty straightforward but others like loose leash walking and resource guarding need a lot more detail than what’s in this blog post. But these are examples of how, pretending we can be perceived as dogs will lead to the wrong intervention.


Curiously, when we try to solve problems by thinking we can act like a dog, most every time, it involves scaring, startling, or hurting your dog.

Problem: Your dog growls at you because you reach to take his toy. 

If you think the solution is to act like a dog:

You will believe your dog is trying to dominate you. Your dog should know that all resources belong to you! You are the alpha dog! And your dog must acknowledge your leadership!

In this worldview, you may be told that the alpha dog or mama dog would pin the puppy on its back and forcefully take the thing away, to let the puppy know who the leader is.

And from that worldview, it makes sense. (Except that’s not how dogs actually treat each other. But stay with me here!)

If you look to science:

Animals that don’t guard in the wild, don’t survive. Every animal wants to eat.

Not all pet dogs guard, but many do. Those that don’t, would not survive as strays because they need to compete for food.

A dog that guards is a dog that is scared of losing his stuff.

Your dog is not trying to run the world or dominate you. He’s just making sure he gets to eat. (He doesn’t know that the food comes from you every day and that he doesn’t need to worry about it.)

So the way forward is, to help your dog understand that taking his stuff predicts even better stuff is coming. (The specifics are beyond the scope of this web blog.) You can change your dog’s emotional response from fear and aggression when you approach his stuff, to “yay!!” And when you do that, your dog will not guard anymore.

You can fix this issue without ever trying to make your dog think that you’re another dog!

Problem: Your puppy thinks you’re a chew toy!

If you think the solution is to act like a dog:

Common wisdom says to yelp like another puppy would.

Guess what else makes yelp noises! Delicious, small prey animals! There’s a good chance your puppy will think that you yelping is a fun game.

Bite! Yelp! Yay!!!

This one is pretty harmless. Some people swear it works. I’d guess it looks like it works because puppies grow out of it. But…

If you look to science:

We know that giving a brief timeout from positive reinforcement, will make your puppy stop chewing on you. Your puppy enjoys your company and if you walk away when play is too rough, your puppy will stop trying to use you as a chewy.

Problem: Your dog pulls on the leash

If you think the solution is to act like a dog:

Some people will tell you that a leash pop is like a mama dog correcting the dog by biting the neck.

But your prong collar isn’t the same as teeth and a leash pop isn’t the same as biting. And there is no way that your dog thinks you are his mama correcting him.

Many people also find this method ineffective, and yet the advice is still passed along. And this method is not harmless. It can injure a dog’s trachea, can teach your dog that something he lunged at out of fear, really is something to be upset about. It can cut into the neck and you might not see it due to fur covering the area.

If you turn to science:

You will reward your dog when he isn’t pulling, under conditions that have few distractions. You will then gradually build up to increasing distractions.

For some people, collar jerks work, not because your dog thinks you’re its mama, but because punishment can suppress behaviors or make them go down in frequency. But I hope to encourage the reader to consider that there are ways to get nice walking on a leash without ever risking your dog’s emotional well being. AND it’s more pleasant to walk your dog without having to jerk on him!

We Don’t Need to Pretend to be Dogs to Change Problem Behaviors

Some people believe that positive reinforcement trainers are permissive. They seem to believe that because we don’t try to pretend we’re dogs, we don’t have the capability of solving behaivoral issues. Not only is that not true, but when there is a problem we don’t like, we can humanely fix it, using scientific principles, in the following ways:

  • Incompatible behaviors – Find a behavior that is incompatible with the one we don’t want, and train the dog to do it instead
  • Changing emotions – a dog that is barking, growling, and lunging at strangers is not a bad dog. It’s a scared dog who would like the scary person to leave. We can change a dog’s underlying emotional reaction by the scary thing predicting something good.
  • Time out – this is not appropriate if the underlying issue is that a dog is upset. But it can be humane and effective for things like puppy biting.

Have you ever been tempted into thinking a problem behavior should be resolved by pretending you’re a dog? Leave a comment!

Kayla Block, MA, CTC

Kayla Block, MA, CTC

Owner, Understanding Dog training

Dogs do what works! And if what your dog is doing, isn't working for YOU, let's talk!