Countless times when I was a teenager, my mom would ask in frustration at my overwhelming sass, “Do you have any idea how you sound when you talk to me?” (I didn’t.)
When I studied acting in college, my professor looked me right in the eye and said, “Are you aware you sound kind of like a jerk?” (I wasn’t.)
And when I was paired with my canine partner, Ralph, I was asked, “Do you know how important it is to communicate well with your dog?” (I thought I did, but once again, I didn’t.)
As with most things, my communication style has evolved over the course of my life. Fortunately, I matured and turned off the sass (mostly), and fortunately, I was smart enough to work with my acting professor to gain some self-awareness. Then I got a dog and learned more than I ever could’ve imagined about the way we communicate with each other.
At Cook Children’s Medical Center, where Ralph and I work, he is known for his entertaining tricks. And many times after witnessing his abilities, people ask me how I taught him to do those things. I’ve never really known how to answer that question, except to say, “Patience.” Often the response to that is something along the lines of, “All the patience in the world wouldn’t get my dog to do that!” Thinking more about it, I realize the key is actually in the way I communicate with Ralph.
Ralph was my first dog as an adult. He was the first one I would be solely caring for, and I fell in love with him hard. I have cried so many tears of joy over Ralph (and a few of concern too, when I could tell he wasn’t feeling well) that it’s made me wonder how anyone is emotionally strong enough to parent human children! All of that to say, Ralph is my priority in life and at work, I’m greatly invested in him, and all of that time with him brought me to this conclusion:
It matters how we communicate with our dogs. Our tone matters, our body language matters, our words matter.
My communication choices with Ralph have been the difference for him between fear and trust; between refusal and compliance; between happiness and depression.
Here’s an example. Ralph famously loathes bath time. But as a condition of his employment, he is required to be bathed weekly. He is so smart that he knows when it’s Monday; he starts to try and coax me into walking the opposite direction from the mobile groomer parked outside the hospital. I’ll admit there have been times that I’ve been in a hurry or impatient for one reason or another, and I’ve lacked empathy. “Let’s GO, Ralph. Come on.” And guess what? He only pulls harder. However, when I keep the communication positive, when I make eye contact, narrate for him that I am coming with him and that he’s safe and everything is going to be fine, he trots right alongside me and hops right into the grooming van.
The same is true for trick-training. There’s a huge difference between what happens when I am unenthusiastic and directive, versus when I am excited for Ralph, cheer him on, and let him know I believe in him. He now recognizes the words, “you can do it” and “you got it,” and when he hears those words, he almost always tries again (usually with more “umph!”)
Maybe we should practice that with each other. Maybe we should pay attention to the difference it makes not only to our dogs, but to our family members, our friends, and our co-workers when we cheer them on. Sometimes all it takes is one voice saying what you already know deep down: you got it.
How do you establish a relationship with your dog? Tell us in the comments!
Kizzy Marco grew up in Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Iowa. She has loved dogs her whole life, starting with the Cairn Terrier her family got when she was 5 years old (she wanted to name him StarBright, which her siblings still mock to this day). Now Kizzy has her dream job which is improving outcomes for hospitalized kids with the help of her Golden Retriever, Ralph Lauren.