When I picked up my dog Ruby on Long Island nearly seven years ago, I was surprised to discover that she talks like a human. When I ask her a question (Are you hungry? Do you want to eat dinner? Are you going to bed?), she looks me in the eye, nods her head, and opens her mouth in agreement. For years I tried to figure out the reason for her mysterious behavior — was it genetic? — by trying to track down her parents or siblings, but that search only resulted in some phone calls with sympathetic and sometimes suspicious miniature pinscher breeders who told me I should just give up. It finally dawned on me last week to ask an animal behavior expert. So I pinged Victoria Stilwell, who hosts the hilariously informative dog training show It's Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. Here, Stilwell explains why Ruby talks, why dogs aren't like humans, and how dog training techniques can be applied to tame unruly children.
Why does Ruby talk? Does she think she's human?
It's a human thing to think that a dog thinks it's human. There are some things that dogs do that make people think, oh they're acting human! But dogs are just trying to work out what brings rewards, what will make them feel good.
She probably made a link that it's a form of communication that she knows will get your attention. That's probably why she repeats it — she knows it will get a positive outcome.
Is Ruby really just thinking about cookies and toys and going outside all day?
Dogs are pretty live in the moment. You're eating something that stimulates hunger, so therefore it wants to eat. Dogs are not manipulative — that is a very human trait. People say, I found urine on my bed; the dog peed because it was spiteful. Well, no. Spite is not a word you can use for a dog, it's a very human thing. The dog was just anxious and the pee was a way to transmit anxiety.
A dog will do what it needs to do to survive. It will also move towards things that give them pleasure and move away from things that make them uncomfortable.
Why do dogs tilt their heads? Do they do it in the wild too?
When a dog tilts its head to the side, it's weighing its options, and trying to understand a situation. I think they do it in the wild too, when they're assessing a situation.
Can you apply dog training techniques to human children?
Absolutely. I'm the mother of a six year old child, and I really believe that the behavior principles I've learned through training dogs can be applied to children. If you reward and make a child feel good about good behavior, she's more likely to feel better and behave better. If she does something that's not good, I'll mark the bad behavior, and she'll get a time out or have something that she values taken away from her. She's at the age now where we can talk about it. I'll say, you did this, so now you have two options: you can continue down the road you're going or you can take the other option. It's similar to the way we train dogs, where we give them choices. That promotes confidence.
What's wrong with anthropomorphizing dogs? Why can't we treat them like babies?
We're bringing these animals to live in our domestic environment, where they have to live by human rules. That can be very hard — why can't they poo and pee everywhere? In the dog world, they go when they need to, and chew and mark as they please. We have to teach them to be successful in our world. Where a lot of trainers who use the dominant style go wrong is that they misunderstand this fact.
A dog's physiological experience and nervous system are the same as a humans. But dogs might not experience emotions the same way. We don't know for sure how the dog feels love, or how it feels jealousy. I think that's the danger of anthropomorphizing — it's okay to do it to some extent but not so it clouds our understanding of dog behavior.
A lot of people think positive reinforcement training is just for little dogs and nandy pandy behavior, but it's actually based on the science of learning. If your dog does something good, you reward it, and that'll make him feel good and want to repeat that behavior. Discipline shouldn't be used to make a dog fear you — you get much better results if you use it as a guide.
Is it bad to domesticate animals? It seems apparent that it's clearly not natural for some animals, like killer whales. Can the same be said for dogs?
A good argument can be made that if the dog had a choice, it would choose this life over hunting squirrels for a living. The fact is, we have domesticated dogs and they wouldn't know how to survive in the wild.