A friend of mine was visiting recently and pointed out two things about me; That I get a wee bit competitive while playing cards and that my dog Nora sometimes ignores me. I embraced the former, but had a slightly defensive response to the latter. No surprise being that I’m a dog trainer who prides herself on having dogs who are happily cooperative and reliably responsive to requests. I decided to take a look at a typical day to help me better understand my friend’s opinion and discovered something that might be shocking to some; My dog ignores me sometimes, and that is just fine.
I start the day cooing at Nora “Who is the cutest puppy in the world?” Our morning walk gets delayed when I ask “Do you need another belly rub to start the day off right?” When we finally head outside she becomes deeply engrossed with a spot of grass that looks to me exactly like every other spot of grass within a half mile radius. “Did you find a good sniffy spot?” I ask. She keeps sniffing, no surprise what with so many scent particles and so little time. Back inside I plan to get to work. I ask Nora “Should I answer emails or get to work on my new book?” No response is forthcoming, so I choose to surf the net for a bit. I take lots of breaks to ask her “How did I get so lucky to get a dog as cute you? Do you know how much I love you?”
In addition to these practical, fact finding questions, I also spend quite a bit of time on sweet nothings such as “You are a scruffalicious, little monkey.” So far, it seems my friend has made a valid point; Nora is bombarded with my chatter throughout the day and ignores most of it. Of course, there is the occasional tail wag as if to say “Yes, I know, you love me lots,” or an adorably raised eyebrow, which reminds me of a teenager rolling their eyes and saying “Oh Mom, enough already!” But, more often than not she just continues with her previous engagements (i.e. napping, chewing a toy, or sniffing).
Out in the yard later that day, I spotted a little brown bunny and hoped Nora wouldn’t notice. But, she raised her head and twitched her nose at which point it was clear she had caught the bunny’s scent. Like most little terriers, Nora can go from 0 to 60 in about 2.5 seconds. She was across the yard and about 15 feet from the bunny (frozen in “I’m not here!’ fear) by the time I called her. When she whipped around and flew back to me I beamed with pride and asked my friend “So, do you still think my dog ignores me?” I asked. “Yes, she definitely ignores you. Just not when it counts,” Stephanie wisely responded. I clearly have some smart, observant friends.
Nora, like most dogs, has learned to ignore much of my constant chatter. Tuning me out a bit as I go on and on about how cute she is, or how much work I have, is not only acceptable, but perfectly understandable. People are verbal creatures (especially with our best canine buddies) and dogs not so much. Nora has clearly learned that there are loads of times, in fact most of them, when my banter is just that. An almost constant stream of one sided conversation that doesn’t require much, if any, response from her. Although the occasional tail wag, or cute little tilt of her head surely makes my day.
Stephanie asked me how Nora learned to discriminate between when she can ignore me and when she must pay attention. I think it comes down to setting a good foundation of a trusting relationship and taking the time to teach even just a few skills (such as name recognition, hand targeting, come when called and sit, stand and lie down on request).
When your dog understands to respond reliably to these requests you know you have a solid foundation of communication to keep your dog (and neighborhood bunnies) safe, and to ensure their overall well-being and happiness, as well as your own. At this point, a dog like Nora is pretty clear about what requires her attention and what doesn’t. So, she is free to go about enjoying her day as best she can with the almost non-stop background soundtrack of my chatter. She is clearly confident about her understanding of when her attention is required and I am confident that I can embrace the fact that the friend who I chat with most often is also the one who is most likely to ignore me a lot of the time, and that’s OK.