“Oh, Baxter. I’ll take you to foggy London town ’cause you’re my little gentleman.” — Ron Burgundy to his dog in the movie Anchorman
Most of us try so hard to teach our dogs good manners. Some of us even praise them by saying inane things like, “What a little gentleman!” There are at-home manners, visiting-a-friend’s-house manners, dog park manners, walking-on-crowded-sidewalks manners, and just good doggie manners in general.
But we may be less likely to work on our own manners in our interactions with our dogs.
Using polite phrases is one way we humans attempt to be civilized with each other. It may seem odd to incorporate politeness in your conversations with your dog — and we all know that we talk out loud to our dogs all the time — since dogs can’t understand the nuances behind phrases such as, “I’m sorry” and “thank you.”
What they do pick up is the tone of your voice, your body language, and the positive effects that these niceties have on our brains and bodies.
Believe me, I was skeptical about this until I did a few experiments with my Pit Bull, Bunch. It certainly seemed to make a difference in my own perceptions and actions as well as in hers. One thing that is critical, though, is that you have to mean it when you’re being polite to your dog! If you’re not sincere, then neither of you will get any benefits.
Different genteel sayings have different effects on the person saying them. But, overall, they increase our sense of awareness of those we say them to and even release endorphins in our body. Saying them can make you feel better, in short, while they change your dog’s behavior.
Here are some sayings I used with Bunch and how they were successful:
Apologizing to another person obviously can make her feel better, but it affects you, too. When you say “I’m sorry” to your dog after accidentally stepping on his foot or after losing your temper when he tore up a pillow, you are acknowledging that you have done wrong and helping to insure you’re not blaming your dog for the incident.
This humbling of yourself comes out in your tone and body language. It eliminates an unnecessary use of treats, which we often use to bribe our dogs for “forgiveness.” Instead, it is usually accompanied with a big hug.
Bunch decided to eat a part of my bed when I first got her, and I unduly lost my temper. Immediately — and that’s important — I said I was sorry with open body language, holding out my arms. Because I meant it, I’m sure Bunch understood the gestures.
There’s a difference between telling your dog to move and asking her to. Saying please to your dog helps keep frustration out of your voice and makes it a more positive command, which your dog will pick on. It also reminds us that our dogs are sensitive creatures and, likely, more civilized than we are.
My kitchen is in a small, narrow hallway in my apartment. It’s not the best place for Bunches to be when I’m cooking. I’ve found that when I just say, “Get out,” Bunch gets out and comes right back. But if I say, “Please, get out,” Bunch stays out for a much longer time. This is due to my more positive and persuasive tone when using “please.”
This phrase promotes gratitude in the speaker, and gratitude releases tons of those great endorphins. Whether we’re thanking our dog for doing a command or something more nebulous (such as being quiet while we write an article), these words remind us of the importance of our dogs and make us feel good, which makes our dogs feel good, too.
Bunch recently became a toilet paper thief. I often thank her for many things and thought I’d try it in this situation. When I see a white streak of Bunch and trailing toilet paper go by, instead of chasing her, I calmly go over to her, thank her for the roll and gently take it. She’s still a toilet paper thief but now she brings it to me. I thank the positive atmosphere that comes from all of those fabulous endorphins of mine for her behavior.
Behaving in a well-mannered way to your dog may not seem all that important in the scheme of things, and it’s not as crucial as, say, teaching some commands. But it’s an easy thing to try, and the benefits to yourself, and thus to your dog, are certainly worth it. But do it in the moment (saying “sorry” a day later doesn’t work) and remember to mean it!
Do you tell your dog you’re sorry when you lose your temper? Do you feel a greater bond with your dog when you thank her for something? Let us know in the comments!
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About Kelly Pulley: A Longtime dog owner and Pit Bull guru, Kelly tackles a variety of topics, including life with Pit Bulls and loving itty-bitty dogs despite their size. Catch her at www.petwriter.com and www.pitbullguru.com.