Monday, September 3, 2012

Communication Breakdown

Jan and I were married in St. Kitts September 23, 2004. It was a beautiful, private ceremony held in the gardens of Romney Manor.

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:
  1. Be consistent - in ways you never thought necessary.
  2. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  3. You can't crown yourself king.
Let's take the points in order.

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.
As for her ability to read us, I've mentioned before that Jan has long hair, a beard and wears glasses. He also has a very soft, very deep voice. Even when he's over-the-moon happy, it can be hard to tell. In fact, if he gets excited, his deep voice gets louder but not really any lighter so it could be miscontrued as yelling if you don't understand the actual words he's saying.

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.
This approach however, actually kind of pissed Bella off (pardon my language). I felt like I was watching "Fatal Attraction" and Bella was doing her best "I'm not going to be ignored", Jan! routine when he turned away from her only without the humor we can look back on it with now.  It was scary. She wasn't dialing it back when he turned away, she just ran around and got back in front of him again.

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.)

Snoopy's Dog Blog


  1. I love your posts like this so much! It fascinates me to see the lengths you got to to help Bella.
    Nola's a highly intelligent, highly sensitive dog, and if your tone is the slightest bit off (she gets so freaked out if I get a cold and my voice gets rough) it makes her uneasy. She also reads me all the time, which is cool and unnerving at the same time!
    I love the advice of the photographer, it's so true.
    It would be so much easier if dogs could talk, but I worry Nola would go around telling people things they don't need to know about themselves ;)
    Nola's Mom

  2. First, I must say how much I luv your wedding photo. Happy, pretty, peaceful :)

    Bella sure did choose her pawrents well. Talk about giving your dog your all. Wow. Paws high in the air to you!

    It is wonderful of you to share this story. I'm fairly certain that all dog pawrents run into behavioral/communication difficulties from time to time. The details of your story are sure to help some either understand a situation they encountered in the past, deal better with a current one, or be more prepared to address something that may occur in the future.

    Very well told too I might add :)

    Waggin at ya,

  3. What an interesting post-some very good punts here. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I think this illustrates why getting behavioural advice online isn't always going to fit your situation - you have quite a unique dog and it has taken a lot of expertise to figure out just what is going on with her. Unless you find someone online with the same dog as you, then general advice probably won't fit.

  5. That is a different approach than you generally read....and so glad it was one that helped you both with Bella. Sounds like you instinctively knew what to do anyway. :-)

  6. this was a great post! I think I am so guilty about Number 2. I often give Dakota a command and when he is in "stubborn" mode he will either not complete the command or do it halfway and I can't begin to tell you how many times I have let him get away with this. Bad Mama!

  7. I'm glad that you found something that worked for all of you. The point is that you didn't stop trying! So many people would have given up.

  8. Dogs communicate so quickly through body language. When I've wondered what happened between two dogs, I often need to go back and look at still pictures or slow down video to see all the interactions.

    They pick up things from us so quickly too. It can be hard to learn to speak to dogs through our bodies and emotions. 

    It sounds like both you and Jan have gotten much good advice on communication.

    Really enjoying this series. I'm especially looking forward to learning more about agility for reactive dogs.

  9. Over at Georgia's Mansion, I think it's the other way around with the communications. It's not what is said that's important, it's the whole body language. At least that's what The Other Half tells me. Apparently, when I say it's okay for him to go out riding with the boys, my body is actually saying NO! DON'T YOU DARE! :)

    I don't suppose Jan would ever trim his beard and wear contacts? ;) Amazing how dogs read everything and don't just hear the words, but also the tone. If only we humans were as aware.

  10. Each dog has it's own personality and it seems you have to learn how to communicate all over again. Fortunately, you learn a bit more with each one and it gets easier. Sage easily get 'freaked out' about something...I work on that body language all the time!!

  11. Cats are easier: they talk to you, they are firm, and you learn to do what they want :-)

  12. So interesting!! Cali definitely gets stressed when my hubby is stressed and she hates hockey season :) (too much yelling!) I can't wait to hear more!!

  13. Wow that must have been an awful lot to digest and take on board. I keep saying it, but she is very lucky she has you two! I would just like to point out, though, that dogs CAN talk. Otherwise how would I dictate my blog?! ;-) Deccy x

  14. I'm so glad you guys have found some techniques that hare helping. It just goes to show that you can't believe everything you read. In my experience, no one thing will work for every dog and you just have to keep trying until you find what works for yours. Bella's lucky to have you.