When I picked up my dog Ruby on Long Island nearly seven years ago, I was surprised to discover that she talks like a human. When I ask her a question (Are you hungry? Do you want to eat dinner? Are you going to bed?), she looks me in the eye, nods her head, and opens her mouth in agreement. For years I tried to figure out the reason for her mysterious behavior — was it genetic? — by trying to track down her parents or siblings, but that search only resulted in some phone calls with sympathetic and sometimes suspicious miniature pinscher breeders who told me I should just give up. It finally dawned on me last week to ask an animal behavior expert. So I pinged Victoria Stilwell, who hosts the hilariously informative dog training show It’s Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. Here, Stilwell explains why Ruby talks, why dogs aren’t like humans, and how dog training techniques can be applied to tame unruly children.
Why does Ruby talk? Does she think
It’s a human thing to
think that a dog thinks it’s human. There are some things that
dogs do that make people think, oh they’re acting human! But
dogs are just trying to work out what brings rewards, what will
make them feel good.
She probably made a link that
it’s a form of communication that she knows will get your
attention. That’s probably why she repeats it — she
knows it will get a positive outcome.
Is Ruby really just thinking about cookies and
toys and going outside all day?
are pretty live in the moment. You’re eating something that
stimulates hunger, so therefore it wants to eat. Dogs are not
manipulative — that is a very human trait. People
say, I found urine on my bed; the dog peed because it was
spiteful. Well, no. Spite is not a word you can use for a dog,
it’s a very human thing. The dog was just anxious and the pee
was a way to transmit anxiety.
A dog will do what it
needs to do to survive. It will also move towards things that
give them pleasure and move away from things that make them
Why do dogs tilt their
heads? Do they do it in the wild too?
When a dog tilts its head to the side, it’s weighing its
options, and trying to understand a situation. I think they do
it in the wild too, when they’re assessing a situation.
Can you apply dog training techniques
to human children?
Absolutely. I’m the
mother of a six year old child, and I really believe that the
behavior principles I’ve learned through training dogs can be
applied to children. If you reward and make a child feel good
about good behavior, she’s more likely to feel better and
behave better. If she does something that’s not good, I’ll mark
the bad behavior, and she’ll get a time out or have something
that she values taken away from her. She’s at the age now where
we can talk about it. I’ll say, you did this, so now you have
two options: you can continue down the road you’re going or you
can take the other option. It’s similar to the way we train
dogs, where we give them choices. That promotes confidence.
What’s wrong with anthropomorphizing
dogs? Why can’t we treat them like babies?
We’re bringing these animals to live in our domestic
environment, where they have to live by human rules. That can
be very hard — why can’t they
poo and pee everywhere? In the dog world, they go when they
need to, and chew and mark as they please. We have to teach
them to be successful in our world. Where a lot of trainers who
use the dominant style go wrong is that they misunderstand this
A dog’s physiological experience and nervous
system are the same as a humans. But dogs might not experience
emotions the same way. We don’t know for sure how the dog feels
love, or how it feels jealousy. I think that’s the danger of
anthropomorphizing — it’s okay to do it to some
extent but not so it clouds our understanding of dog behavior.
A lot of people think positive
reinforcement training is just for little dogs and
nandy pandy behavior, but it’s actually based on the science of
learning. If your dog does something good, you reward it, and
that’ll make him feel good and want to repeat that behavior.
Discipline shouldn’t be used to make a dog fear you —
you get much better results if you use it as a guide.
Is it bad to domesticate animals? It seems
apparent that it’s clearly not natural for some animals, like
killer whales. Can the same be said for dogs?
A good argument can be made that if the dog had a
choice, it would choose this life over hunting squirrels for a
living. The fact is, we have domesticated dogs and they
wouldn’t know how to survive in the wild.