Signals can cause unintentional results in training

Admitting that animals have a unique intelligence or are capable of emotions is a cardinal sin in the world of science.

This prejudice was extreme in the early 15th century, when renowned philosopher Rene Descartes proclaimed animals to be mere machines without conscious thought or the ability to feel pain. Descartes routinely nailed down the legs of a living dog so students could open up the chest and stomach to observe the inner workings of an animal. Because animals were said to be incapable of feeling pain, this practice presented no moral problems for the participants.

While science has advanced to the point of accepting that animals feel pain, it still is professional suicide to support the idea that animals have conscious thought or emotions.

In the 20th century, as a few brave souls timidly were supporting the theory that animals think, feel and emote (although differently from humans), some interesting research was taking place with a horse named Hans.

Hans, with his owner, Van Osten, would amaze onlookers by solving math problems, consistently tapping out the correct answers with his hoof. After many experiments conducted by respected scientists, Hans (dubbed “Clever Hans”) really did seem to have the intelligence to conquer basic mathematics.

Finally, a psychologist of little renown, Oskar Pfungst, conducted his own tests and discovered the truth of Hans’ intelligence. By picking up minute, unconscious cues from his owner, Clever Hans could determine when to stop tapping his answer.

The science community was ridiculed for accepting that an animal could have such intelligence, and the incident effectively stopped any further discussion of the thought capabilities of animals. What scientists failed to notice was the intelligence it took to notice and interpret the signals Osten was giving.

Dogs can be incredibly perceptive of our moods and emotions. A dog that has formed a strong bond with his owner can pick up on very small changes in body posture, muscle tension or facial expression. Have you ever noticed how your dog might “lay low” when your mood is dark or come to sit with you when you are feeling sad?

There are many signals we send to our dogs, both obvious and discreet. We unintentionally can train our dogs to disobey our command by overriding our spoken words with stronger physical signals. For instance, your dog may not listen to the “stay” command if you routinely laugh at her silly antics when she breaks position.

I have seen owners chase their dogs when they run away with the ball while playing fetch. If your dog can get you to play chase, why would she be satisfied to merely bring the ball back? It’s important to think through your training and consciously evaluate your methods. The clearer the goals are for your dog, the clearer she will understand what is expected of her.

As for intelligence, what dog owner doesn’t know that dogs are bright and insightful? Luckily, science has made great strides in understanding the intelligence of dogs and even is beginning to accept that dogs may have emotions. And when a scientist’s dog jumps and whines with ecstasy just because he came home from the laboratory, how can he deny that emotion?

Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at