Are You Talking to Me?

Mom's not paying attention!
Mom’s not paying attention!

How does your dog know that you are talking to him rather than about him? At a friend’s recent presentation on service dogs, she was asked a great question by a member of the audience: How does your dog know when you are talking to him instead of using “command words” in a different context? For example, as both the speaker and I learned service dog training at the same University, our cue for urging a dog to toilet is “better hurry.” But this phrase, along with sit, stand, look, get it, and myriad others, are used while chatting with our friends, as well as being directives for our dogs.
My friend’s response is that not only do dogs know when we are talking directly to them. They also know when we really mean what we say. Several research teams have studied dogs’ ability to know when we are paying attention to them and whether they recognize when verbal communication is intended for them. Other studies have tested dogs’ ability to recognize non-verbal communication, such as pointing to something, or simply looking at something, that is intended for them. The results of many studies show that dogs do, indeed, know when we are talking to them.
None of this is news to a dog owner who has experienced the instant transformation of a peacefully napping dog into the canine equivalent of a hyperactive toddler who has consumed too much sugar — the instant that the owner picks up the phone.
How do our dogs know that we are talking to them rather than about them? Dogs pay attention to everything we do (I suspect that they pay attention even when we are sound asleep). They read our body language, watch our eyes, and recognize the difference between our use of “sit” as an instruction and our use of “sit” in conversation. They train every sense in our direction to see if we are seeking connection. They read our moods, anticipate our actions, and, yes, know whether we are paying attention to them or are distracted.
What does this mean for your relationship with your thinking dog? Well, think about a conversation you’ve had with someone about your latest personal crisis or sought a trusted friend’s advice, only to have her answer her cell phone while you are mid-sentence. Or you’re on the phone with your friend and you keep overhearing her conversation with someone else (or her dogs). You probably feel ignored or frustrated.
Our dogs, too, want connection. They deserve our attention and focus sometimes: Truly look at your dog, watch his body language. Try to understand what he is telling you. Our dogs spend much of their time giving us that kind of attention; they deserve a chunk of our time in return.
How? Make their walks or playtime all about them. No phones. No turning them loose at the dog park and turning your back to chat with another owner. Figure out how your dog likes to be petted, and give him the kind of attention he wants, not distracted stroking while you are focused on a book you are reading or a TV show.

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