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By Published On: July 4th, 2010

While staying with friends in Costa Rica I had the chance to watch a family interacting with their 7 month old terrier mix pup. Duke (unfortunately pronounced ‘Dookie’ in Spanish) was everything you’d want in a dog; engaging, playful, responsive, friendly and cute to beat the band, a classic little scruffy Disney character.

My Spanish is limited and when the father of the family began to order Duke around (to show me his trick of rolling over) I realized that both Duke and I were in the same boat, neither of us understood what he was saying. I watched Duke as he tried his best, dropping to his belly, rolling onto his back, but even as the commanding voice got louder and the hand gestures accompanying it grew bigger and more expansive, Duke stayed belly up, unsure what his next move should be. Finally when the ‘roll over’ never occurred dad waved it off with a laugh and made a disparaging remark about the dog’s intelligence.

This experience highlighted for me the challenges dogs face in trying to learn what the heck we want from them. I suspect in Duke’s case he figured out what made the loud, commanding voices stop and did that. Perhaps he had done complete rollovers for his owner, but with the pressure on both dog and owner to perform, staying in a classic ‘please don’t hurt me’ position seemed the safest choice for little Duke, especially if he did not completely understand which behavior he was rewarded for (with the cessation of shouting) in the past.

The translation challenge extended to my own interpretation of Duke’s behavior. I cut up small pieces of cheese and began to teach Duke to spin. In between spins Duke sunk into a ‘down’. I thought that perhaps this was a behavior he had been reinforced for in the past and he used it as a default. I began to reinforce a ‘stand’ position, but inevitably Duke slipped into a ‘down’. I joked to his owner that he was a lazy boy and we shared a laugh about that until it occurred to me that indeed Duke was slipping down.

The floors in the house, typical to many homes in Costa Rica, has ceramic tile floors. They were so clean and shiny that on several occasions I did a double take, thinking they were wet. When I got Duke spinning again I kept an eye on his feet and could see that when he wasn’t lying down his furry paws would slide on the floor. Whether standing or sitting he constantly had to adjust his footing to keep his feet under him. When he was sitting his front paws gradually slid forward and rather than fight gravity he simply went with it and ended up in a ‘down’.

How often do we get frustrated with our dogs for not doing what we ask when they have no idea of what we want or when physical constraints prevent them from do it? I’ll guess that it’s more common than dogs not doing what we ask when they understand and are fully capable of performing a behavior, but choose to blow us off. Duke was lucky, the only punishment he received for noncompliance was some good natured name calling. And those were words I did understand in Spanish!

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