The photographer of our wedding bestowed a few words of wisdom on us regarding how to have and keep a healthy marriage. His words have stayed with me ever since. He told us to "talk to each other."
Both Jan and I nodded having, we thought, heard this advice time and again - yes, we need to communicate. But the photographer pressed that, in fact, we hadn't. He clarified:
"I don't mean communicate, I mean talk to each other. We communicate with everyone all the time - our eyes, our faces, our bodies communicate. You need to talk to each other. Talking is different. It removes the potential confusion and misunderstanding we communicate to each other when we don't talk."Obviously, dogs can't talk.
They don't have the benefit of our wordy explanations regarding why we need them to do something, why something they're doing is wrong and why, as much as we'd like to stay, we have to go to work in the morning. But just like us, they do communicate. And they read our signals to them probably far better than we can imagine.
Bella is extraordinarily communicative. She is often very clear in relaying her needs and desires to us. We apparently lack her skills because we haven't yet been able to make her understand where she fits in our lives.
When we met with Dr. Dodman to help resolve her issues with Jan, we learned a few things about how to communicate with Bella:
- Be consistent - in ways you never thought necessary.
- Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- You can't crown yourself king.
Point 1 was to both of us.
We know that dogs need consistency to understand what we want from them. If one day they're allowed on the couch and the next day they're not, they're going to get confused. What we didn't know is that some dogs can be so sensitive to our movements, motions and emotions, that even slight variations in our signals can leave them wondering what we want.
This was a lesson both Jan and I had to learn. The lesson was mostly that our dog is better at reading us, if she can see us, than we are at reading her. Dogs understand consisitency and some dogs, especially particularly smart dogs, can get confused if the sign you are using to communicate with them changes even a fraction from what it was previously. We had to learn to be very consistent and definite with our requests to her. Otherwise this could lead to insecurity based in confusion - What did we want from her?
|It wasn't always thus.|
In our conversation with Dr. Dodman, we were reminded how much dogs rely on our facial features and tone of voice to interpret our words. Yet when Bella looks at Jan, she can't usually see his eyes (she sees the reflection of his glasses), she can't easily assess his mouth (hidden to a degree behind his beard) and he's so quiet when he speaks to her most of the time that she may not be able to infer any tone at all because she can barely hear him. So the onus falls to him to read her a little better.
Dr. Dodman suggested Jan pay attention to the time of day (serotinin levels drop at night and she may be less tolerant, crankier), be aware of potentially painful situations (Bella may have some arthritis in her shoulders) and watch her ears, eyes and body posture for signs of stress and discomfort. It's also worth nothing that Jan does not hear quite as well as Bella and I do so visual clues to her current state of mind become even more important than usual.
Note to Jan: You need to up your drama queen quotient.
Correction: While discussing this history with Jan, I was reminded that it wasn't Dr. Dodman who talked to us originally about Bella's inability to read Jan due to his glasses and beard but rather our vet, Dr. Coldwell. It just reinforces what we already know - it takes a village to raise a scared-y dog. ;)
Point 2 was specifically to Jan.
Jan's biggest lesson was the second point: say what you mean and mean what you say. If you ask your dog to do something, expect her to do it. Don't let her get away with half-ways or not-at-alls.
Jan didn't grow up with dogs. The two dogs he shared his life with prior to bringing Bella into our home were adult dogs who had already been trained. They were also pretty 'normal', well-adjusted dogs who, even if they hadn't been trained, weren't going to have the types of issues Bella has. So he wasn't well-versed in all things dog. He wasn't familiar with "Nothing in Life is Free" and he certainly didn't know he should only ask for a behavior once so he had some learning to do there.
But believe me, this is hardly Jan's fault. Bella is a master manipulator. You cannot believe the lengths she will go to in her 'but I'm adorable' box to get what she wants. She can be hard to resist but Jan is learning to set expectations with her and not give in just because she bats her eyelashes at him.
Point 3 was one for me to learn.
When Bella first lunged at Jan, I stepped in between them. I've been stepping into the middle of dog fights my whole life and I didn't really think she would do anything. (I know, I'm not too bright. It's been said.) However, the research I turned up on the web largely suggested that the person being aggressed needed to control the situation. "Stop." "Turn away." "Ignore the dog."
|Bella snuggling up with Jan |
back when she was just a babe.
And then Dr. Dodman said something that really struck home. For whatever reason, Bella has crowned me queen of the castle and deemed herself the queen's guard. It was not up to Jan to place himself above Bella - it was up to me. Anytime Bella made an aggressive advance towards Jan, I had to intervene. (See, maybe I'm not so stupid after all?) I had to be the one to break up the altercation.
This totally goes against all the behavioral advice I found online but maybe they're talking about situations that hadn't yet escalated to this degree? At any rate, it was up to me to control the situation and I have done as good a job as I know how. If Bella got on the bed in the evening, I had to usher her off. If she and I were cuddling and she grumbled at Jan's approach, I had to end the snuggle-fest.
It's been hard, I'll admit. This is the hardest of all the things I've had to do. A good part of me feels like I have let Bella down. That I've weakened the bond she and I shared. But I also know that I would never risk Jan's safety in lieu of a little snuggle time with the dog. Interestingly enough, my bond with her, while changed, has not really suffered. And her bond with Jan has increased exponentially.
The two most influential components of our work with Bella are coming up in the next few weeks: the meds and her 'Agility for Reactive Dogs' classes. I'm hoping to give a quick overview of both but they are long and on-going spokes in our wheel. I hope you'll stick with us for the continuing saga.
Post title credit: Led Zeppelin "Communication Breakdown" (Sorry for the intro advertisement. It's the best rendition of the song I could find on YouTube.)