The last few weeks, the majority of my posts have been inspired by the socialization and behavior modification plan for Shawn, a 6-8 month old shepherd mix found in a junkyard in Detroit. Shawn was born in the junkyard and has not had close-quarters interactions humans before December 28th, 2011.
So far in discussing the human instincts that are in conflict with dog behavior, we've talked about hugging and touch, and eye contact. These posts are relevant to all dogs, but are especially important to be aware of when dealing with feral, unsocialized, or neglect dogs. Next, I'd like to look at the implications of human speech when interacting with special-needs dog populations.
When I was first beginning to make dog training a hobby, I read a book by the Monks of New Skete. As I learned more about the science of dog training, I dismissed a lot of the book as based in dominance theory. There were parts of the book I have always taken with me, however. From a spiritual perspective, I loved the New Skete practice when new monks joined the order. The new monks were given a German Shepard Dog pup to train. The dog went with them everywhere, participated in prayers and work and rest along with a human partner. This all occurs during the monk's vow of silence. Commands are learned through hand signals and other body language. The bond between monk and pup is intense and they learn to communicate on a deep level.
Talking is one of those primate instincts that we rarely think about. It is so much a part of "who we are" that many religions require some kind of vow of silence as part of the spiritual quest of those in leadership positions. Whether that comes in the form of meditation, silent prayer, or prolonged periods of not talking, the act of being silent often leads to profound realizations about our spiritual nature and the world around us.
Through experience with their people, pet dogs learn the signals that show our talking is directed at them. It could be body language or a change in pitch and tone of our voice. Outside of that connection, dogs ignore most of what we talk about and deem it irrelevant to their day. We tend to process what we feel, see, and experience through speech. We talk to each other, some of us talked to our plants, most of us chatter at our animals, and I'd bet I'm not the only one who has been caught cussing at inanimate objects. (Stupid bagel stuck in the stupid toaster...) Really, when you think about it, dogs have no choice but to zone out all this verbalization purely for the preservation of their sanity.
Unsocialized dogs are unfamiliar with human behavior, and as such are overwhelmed by our incessant gabbing. They are trying to read our body language and figure out what it means to them. Imagine their impression when they see face-to-face positioning, sustained eye contact, a human reaching out to restrain them and making weird noises that have no context. This is a scary combination of body language for an unsocialized dog. Fear makes them believe everything is relevant to survival and they are unable to process all this novel stimuli. They become too overcome with fear to experiment with the implications of human speech and will make false conclusions that talking means the same thing as all the other in-your-face, threatening body language we are showing.
An important part of rehabilitation for dogs like Shaun is giving an unsocialized dog a set period of time where talking is kept to a minimum. It allows for a routine to be established and for the dog to become comfortable in the environment. When a dog hears talking, it is best first observed between two humans interacting (benign event), as opposed to human talking to a dog (eye contact can make this a confusing event). This gives the dog an understanding that not all human speech is relevant. After a period when the dog is relaxed and calm when observing humans talking with each other, then we can start talking to the dog. (While being mindful of our body language and eye contact, of course.)
The dog has an opportunity after this point to learn when human speech is a cue about their environment without being overwhelmed with other stimuli. By this point, these dogs have had ample time to observe human body language, learned to experiment within their environment, and learned that taking risks with their individual space often pays off with a positive (treats). They have learned that their primary caretaker will respect their space and is the bearer of all good things (food, treats, water, mental stimulation.) And soon they will learn, like our pet dogs, that most of the time it's all just talk, talk, talk.