Over twelve years ago, when I visited the farm to pick up my dog Athena, I did not know what to expect.  I had read all the books about how to train and to raise dogs, but I also knew that reality differed from the lessons offered in books.  All I knew was that Athena was adorable, and at four weeks, what puppy is not cute?

What I had not realized – when your counterparty cannot communicate orally, you have to acquire a new vocabulary on building a relationship, good habits, and understanding incentives.  Yelling “don’t do that” or “why did you do that” did not help Athena to understand why certain behaviors were problematic and should not be repeated.

All I received from Athena when I yelled after wires had been chewed or she had had a bathroom accident was a head tilt and sad puppy eyes – not behavior change.

Athena the Mentor

Athena the Mentor

How do I communicate with a creature who does not communicate orally?

Enter Athena, mentor to Jenny Kim.

Athena could not communicate orally.  Instead, I paid more attention to how Athena responded when I or any of our other family instructed her to do something or expressed displeasure.  

What did Athena pay attention to when she decided to listen to our instructions?  What signals was she seeking to affirm her hunches about her strange human family?

Over 90 days, I experimented and noted what worked to “train” Athena:

  • Calm, steady body language that affirmed my oral instructions

  • Consistently calm and steady body language

  • Consistent and immediate enforcement of punishment at the time that she committed a bad act (e.g., urinating indoors, chewing wires and shoes, going through the drywall)

  • Consistent and calm affection for orders that she followed and of course, providing a treat (e.g., Pup-Peroni)

  • Lots of side-by-side time spent together doing nothing 

I noted what had not worked with Athena as well:

  • Yelling and using agitated body language

  • Punishing her after I found out about a bad act

  • Inconsistency about enforcing the rules

  • Expecting her to control her emotional impulses after a couple of instructions 

  • Asking her why she did something when she cannot respond orally anyway

As someone who relied almost exclusively on relaying advice and instructions through written and oral means, I had forgotten about observing my counterparty’s nonverbal cues.  Athena reminded me strongly that I had to strengthen this muscle. 

Watching and listening for the unarticulated thoughts and emotions often provide the key to true understanding and communication.

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