I like to think I’m sensitive to the nuances of language. I spent a great deal of time in graduate school doing close readings of literary texts, especially poetry, and as a writer I struggle for precision, laboring over every sentence, sometimes every word.
I also know that good dog training is based on communication.
Yet until I listened to Kelly Dunbar’s interview for Animal Cafe with Roger Abrantes, who has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, it never occurred to me that a common training term conveys something that is antithetical to communicating with your dog — unless you wish to communicate that you are a dictator.
That term is command.
Most of us use the word all the time without considering its implications. As Dr. Abrantes writes on his blog in a piece called Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers:
…The majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something.” …. The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general… It beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.
In her interview, Kelly calls her realization that the term signal could be used instead of command a light bulb moment. I felt like hitting my hand on the forehead and saying “D’oh.”
Dr. Abrantes, who speaks seven languages, has written 17 books and loves dictionaries and definitions, realized that the word signal was more “neutral and benevolent” than command as early as 1994. But the discovery “was in one of those impossible languages,” Dr. Abrantes tells Kelly in his humorous, self-deprecating way.
Besides, people only hear what they want to hear, what they are accustomed to. One anecdote I particularly liked in the interview was related to a seminar that Dr. Abrantes gave. He used the term signal consistently during his talk, yet all the questions that were addressed to him referred to commands.
Going hand in hand — or perhaps I should say whip in hand — with the term command is the term obey. Those who do not follow commands are, by implication, disobedient, and therefore deserving of punishment. Commanding is very different from signaling your dog to produce a behavior you desire. In the latter case, if the communication is unsuccessful, it’s not your dog’s fault but yours.
As it happens, Dr. Abrantes is often in a situation where the term command is appropriate: He works with police officers and detection dogs. But the commands are used between humans, not humans and canines, and they are justified by being applied in a situation requiring precision — and by the fact that the need for them is recognized by all parties and that they are based on clear signals that all agree upon.
“I cannot obey a command I don’t understand,” Dr. Abrantes says. This is very different than our private lives, where “we don’t want a military relationship with our dogs.”
There’s much more. To learn about the fallacy of thinking we can “lead” dogs — as Dr. Abrantes observes, dogs are far better than we are at solving canine problems — and to find out the connection between serving too much mayonnaise and successful dog training, listen to the interview. It’s one of the most interesting — and illuminating — conversations I’ve heard in a long time.