04/11/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Decoding Your Dog: Proof That Dogs Think and Feel

2014-04-10-DecodingYourDog.jpeg After three weeks of nurturing a flu-like bug which spread, domino effect, through our household, I was ready for a new month, fresh with possibilities. But flipping the calendar to April, what I saw were two four-letter words: "jury duty."

With no disrespect for our judicial system, jury duty never falls on a good week. The fact that I was behind on all counts and had completely forgotten this responsibility left me in a particular scramble. As a mom, pet owner and dog trainer, I panicked. I had a lot to take care of.

Child care/Pet care. After a 3-hour phone marathon, I retained a patchwork of caregivers for my kids and pet walkers to check in on the fur-family.

Clients. I rescheduled three private lessons and alerted the rest of the week's roster and group class participants that I might be sequestered.

Reading material. Ahhh. At last -- something positive. I'd finally have a swath of uninterrupted minutes to read the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists Decoding Your Dog and possibly enough time to bang out an article review.

I felt my metaphorical tail wag.

Why, might you ask, would a dog trainer, herself an author, be excited to read yet another dog training book? It's a good question.

Decoding Your Dog isn't just any dog training book, it's a conglomeration of chapters written by board certified veterinary behaviorists -- many of whom I'm proud to call friends -- that are sewn together by another buddy of mine, Steve Dale, an editor and Chicago-based certified behavior consultant and radio host. Chapters include "Housetraining 101," "Aggression Unleashed," "Kids and Dogs," and "Loyalty Gone Overboard: Separation Anxiety." They offer insights into the mind of the dog based on scientific research and advice on how to positively shape cooperative behaviors. Certified veterinary behaviorists know that a dog's reaction to their environment goes more than skin deep -- it is sometimes a response to a medical issue or a traumatic event that often reliably results in a given set of behavioral responses.

Now, you might be confused about all this new-fangled terminology. Have you ever wondered about the term "certified veterinary behaviorist"? How does it contrast to Steve Dale's title as an behavior consultant"? Just the word "behaviorist sounds mighty impressive, but are these specialists any different than your run-of-the-mill dog trainer? Who on earth should you turn to if you need help understanding or training your pet?

The short answer to the question above is yes, they are different -- and it's an education thing. The Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) are the folks who wrote the book. Each author is a doctor of veterinary medicine who has received additional training in clinical veterinary behavior and has satisfied the certification requirements of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). Not only do these doctors know the inside of your dog's body, they've studied the workings of the dog brain, too. They know that the best way to condition a dog's behavior is through positive reinforcement, and they are not shy to tell you so. When necessary, they can draw blood and analyze physical symptoms to determine if a behavior has a medical source. A certified veterinary behaviorist may prescribe and monitor medication to help remedy severe anxiety, uncontrollable reactivity or aggressive behavior. Most of the work they do is in an office, although some will come to your house to assess the home environment.

I will address other certifications in my next piece, but for now, back to the book. Until now, most of the dog "training" books on the market are written from the perspective of successful trainers, like myself. Many of these trainers are certified with respected organizations (I am certified with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants), but only a handful of veterinarians have authored books relating to pet training.

Now, the title Decoding Your Dog might not lead you to believe it's about dog training, but if we take just a moment to decode the word "training," then this book certainly fits the bill and offers a fresh new perspective on how training isn't something you do "to" a dog, it's something you do "with" them.

Dog training is simply teaching English as a Second Language and conditioning your dog to basic household routines. Dogs need to learn to potty outside, get along with children, play nice with cats and other pets, and to come when called. After those basics are covered, a dog can be taught many incredible tasks, tricks and feats -- but that takes training to a whole new level. I call that specialty training, and no, this book doesn't cover those bases. But it does touch on something remarkable and necessary to aspire to those levels -- a secret that is as scientific as it is undeniable: a dog who is trained with positive reinforcement yearns to learn.


Throughout the book sidebars highlight just about anything a dog lover might consider, from housetraining a small dog to breed fads and the affects of certain training equipment on a dog's psyche. Additional segments titled "What Does that Mean?" outline terminology that although industry standard, are hard to keep straight.

What I found most engaging about Decoding Your Dog were the personal stories and anecdotes. I LOVE stories, especially when they're about dogs. Each one compares two perspectives: the persons and the dog/dogs. Not surprisingly, the two never line up. In chapter 8 on kids and dogs, you'll meet Willie the Dalmatian and discover if dogs can "change their spots." In the chapter "School Days," you'll meet Justice and Steve and discover why good social experiences can affect lifelong behavior. Chapter 5 introduces Butch whose owner tried various collars only to discover that all the jerks and electricity couldn't sway his sensitive dog as quickly as a kind touch and positive reinforcement. On each page of Decoding Your Dog, empathy abounds!

So thanks to my judicial incarceration for the peaceful swath of time to immerse myself in this delightful book. What I thought might be a scientific yarn, abruptly shifting as each chapter introduced a different author, turned out to be a well-scripted instructional guide that for once has research, science and the American Veterinary Medical Association's stamp of approval.

This book confirms what many of us have believed for decades, and what young children seem to know in their hearts, as undisputable and true...dogs, each and every blessed one of them, think, communicate and feel. What they long for is what each and every blessed one of us longs for too: to have a warm heart to embrace us, a gentle hand to guide us, and a loving teacher to show us the way.