What Are Dogs Responding To?

Photo by Christina Phelps
Photo by Christina Phelps

A tall, elderly gray mixed-breed is the oldest Cali. Two young Labs, a Border Collie mix, a spaniel, another mix. Any of at least a alf-dozen dogs could come running when I call Cali at our neighborhood dog run. I never would have named her Cali if I had known how trendy the name was; it seems to be especially popular in our Petaluma, Calif., neighborhood.
But they don’t come. Each Cali (or Callie or Kali) responds to her own mom — including (usually) my Cali. And they ignore the calls of the other Cali moms. So, what are they responding to?
Some dog trainers argue that dogs do not understand words at all. They respond to a mixture of sounds and body language cues that we send them, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously. Others, including the apparently wise and wonderful Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppy raiser whose dog is the TODAY Show’s newest star, know that dogs can and do recognize their own names and “understand” lots of words. On one of his first appearances, Wrangler, the TODAY Show puppy, walked over to Saxon, the trainer and sat when she called him. He had learned his name in less than a day.
Dogs do learn their names, and they learn associations with other words as well. Some, like “sit” and “down,” are associations we teach them; others, like “cookie” and “walk,” they often manage to learn on their own.
Dogs are not as focused on words as people. They notice our tone and pick up on the emotion behind our words. They are very tuned in to our body language, too. I’m sure that all those Calis hear me calling — and know that it’s perfectly fine to ignore me. “Not my mom,” they might think as they decide to ignore the sound of their name being called.
If your words are not getting the desired response from your dog, don’t just repeat the words. Think about the whole message you are sending and see if changing your posture, adding a gesture, or adding some happiness and enthusiasm to your tone of voice helps you get a better response.
And at the dog park, while your dog is most likely keeping track of where you are, his responses might not be as speedy as you might like. There is also a lot going on there, and you’re not likely to be more compelling than his buddies, the birds, the balls, and the squirrels. It’s a good idea to practice recalls in less distracting environments until you’re sure he’s got it, then let your dog have fun with his buddies, calling him to you only when really necessary.

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