Listen To Your Dog

The wind whipped up white caps in the marina. Masts etched the clouds as they swung back and forth. And the trawler was bucking like a bronco at his first rodeo.

The pit mix on board looked distressed. But his people had not learned the first lesson of building trust–listen to your dog.

Woman and golden retriever in crowd.

People Who Listen To Dogs

While blogging, fostering, and learning about dogs, I’ve surrounded myself with thoughtful people.

I can’t express how much I’ve learned from amazing folks who have worked with their own dogs, fostered puppy mill rescues, and raised service dogs.

Moving onto a boat and meeting a wide range of dog people? I’ve had my eyes opened to the dog world outside my tiny circle.

There was the man who bought the myth that all golden retrievers are perfect (click the link to learn what pisses off a golden retriever owner more than anything else) and didn’t notice how his male was harassing Honey on the dock.

One woman whose dog was in full stalking mode at the end of a taut leash asked if I wanted to let Honey play (want to know how we got away without instigating a fight? Click the link.).

Abigail the boat dog, guards a sailboat in a marina.
There are as many different boat dogs as there are boat people. This is Abigail, the guard Schnauzer.

And I worry about the golden doodles on the sailboat headed to Mexico. They had a reputation in the marina for not behaving well with other dogs. But worse was that their person had planned a multi-day passage without knowing his dogs would potty on board without trauma.

People may love their dogs. But they don’t all listen to their dogs.

Woman talking on phone at dock next to golden retriever.
Honey and her “cousin” were interested in meeting. But since I usually listen to her, she was willing to listen to me and keep walking.

And that’s why they’ll never have the strong relationship they could have. A relationship that would be rewarding for both of them. But that would also make life on board a boat much easier.

Listening To Your Boat Dog

Obviously everyone benefits from bonding with their dog.

Participating in dog sports not only benefits from a strong relationship but also contributes to building one. Off-leash work, skills training, and managing life changes are all easier when you have a strong bond with your dog.

But when you live on a boat? Life is less certain. Less routine.

If you listen to your boat dog, you’ll have the kind of bond that will make both of you safer, happier, and more comfortable.

The Captain Who Failed To Listen To His Dog

The trawler had backed into the slip. But the short finger pier tapered at the end. Where the gate lined up, the pit mix had less than two feet to stick his landing before falling into the water on the other side.

At the same time, the wind was blowing the boat off the pier, creating a wide gap as the trawler rocked in the turbulent water.

The human crew fought to pull the boat close to the pier and verbally coaxed the dog to make the jump.

Did I imagine it? Or did I see the schmooshy pittie shake his head “no” in response?

As the gusts increased, the people became more aggravated and started yelling at the dog.

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I grabbed Honey’s telescoping boat ramp (Amazon) and offered it to the trawler owners. In those conditions, even a ramp wouldn’t make it easy. But it was a little bit safer. And I thought it might help the dog feel more comfortable.

They waved me off. And somehow managed to coax/pull/drag their dog off the boat.

Golden retriever looking at a ramp on a small finger pier.
It looks awfully wet down there. Are you sure this is safe?

The dog was smart. Getting off the boat was risky. He could have fallen overboard and been crushed against a piling. They were lucky to get him off without anyone getting hurt.

I wasn’t around when they returned to the boat. So I don’t know how they managed to get him back on board. But I bet it wasn’t any easier.

Especially after damaging their relationship by not listening to their dog.

Listening To My Dog

I thought Honey and I had a close relationship before we moved onto the boat.

But living so close to each other, being together nearly all the time, I’ve come to know her better than ever. I’ve learned a lot by listening to my dog, like:

  • which dogs are truly playful and which ones are scared; despite what their people tell me
  • when it’s time to groom her paws (she hesitates more jumping off the boat)
  • when I really need to pay attention to the weather
  • and more.

How To Listen To Your Dog

Honey is smart. But she doesn’t speak English. So you may be wondering what I mean when I say I listen to her.

Honey the golden retriever looks for a bite of taco.
If you really listened to me, you’d have bought me a taco.

Here’s how to listen to your dog.

Stop when they stop

To me, a leash is not a steering wheel; it’s a communication tool.

If your dog stops while walking on leash, look first at them and then at your surroundings to see why.

For Honey, it’s most often because she sees a friendly human who needs a golden greeting.

There’s no way I’m going back to the boat. I need say hello to my friends.

But she will also tell me when she’s not ready to return to the boat. Stopping at the top of the marina ramp is Honey’s way of telling me she’d like to spend a little time sitting or playing outside.

Respond to their “looks”

Honey talks to me by staring into my eyes. It’s how she tells me she needs something.

I respond by

  • looking to see if her water bowl is full
  • checking the clock to see if it’s dinner time
  • ask if she’s ready to go to bed

Play when they bring out toys

Honey loves to play.

If she gets a stuffie out of her toy bag, everything else stops. It’s time to play.

Respect their hesitation

Some days Honey jumps eagerly off the boat to say hello to a neighbor. Other days, she hesitates and looks uncertain.

I can’t always tell why Honey is hesitating. Sometimes I think she can’t see well. Other times, her feet may be slipping too much because I need to groom her.

And sometimes she’s just a little underconfident.

Even if she can jump on and off the boat much of the time, when she hesitates, I bring out her ramp or harness to make it easier for her.

Foundation Of A Strong Bond

Want a well-trained dog? Build a strong foundation of trust.

Want a dog who trusts you? Listen.

Your turn: How do you build a strong bond with your dogs?

We’re joining the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop to talk about Building Your Relationship with Your Pet Through Training. Check out our hosts from Tenacious Little TerrierWag n Woof Pets, and Travels With Barley.

Join the hop.


  1. This is such an important message. When out with Cupcake, we see so many people who say their dogs want what their humans want their dogs to want instead of the humans paying attention to their dogs. Humans have a habit of rationalizing their dog’s behavior with “we have a cat at home”. Does your dog bare his teeth at your cat at home, too? My cat doesn’t want to be eaten.

    • Lucky Cupcake has you looking out for her.

      I met someone recently who was trying very hard to listen to her dog. But she was still learning. She said her newly rescued dog wanted to play based on her barking and behavior. I wasn’t sure. So I looked at Honey. If the other dog had been playful, Honey would have responded in kind.

      Instead, she sat very still and didn’t wag–proof that the other dog was not being playful.

      I’m glad to have a doggie interpreter. She’s not even bad at understanding cats. 🙂

  2. Great message!

  3. Mom just wrote a post for 4Knines on strengthening the bond with your dog through dog sports. Sports included obedience since it is also a team activity and can be done competitively if one chooses. Through sports you do learn to figure out what your human wants, and they learn what we want and how we understand verbal and physical cues. Nice post, but sadly so many people never take the time to understand their dog and figure out what they need or are trying to say.

    • I love reading about your dog sports–even when things don’t go just the way your mom wants them to. It’s such a good reminder that you’re competing together. And that she needs to watch you and your sister to know how you’re doing.

      And yes, most people know very little about their own dogs. It’s so sad.

  4. Listen to Your Dog would be a great title for the book I want you to write.

  5. This word cannot be shared enough! There are so many dog “owners” that never listen to their dogs. I just don’t understand it. Is this precious animal “just a dog” to them and they don’t care? As many of your loyal readers and myself, my dogs are family. I listen, they listen. Passing it along!

    • As a pittie lover, you might not be surprised to hear that we find pit bull “owners” to be the best listeners. While lab and golden retriever people are notoriously awful.

      I know it’s a big generalization. But I think people whose dogs have faced discrimination for their looks are particularly careful about the impression they leave.

      Lots of retriever “owners” coast on their dogs’ reputation without working with them to be good dogs.

  6. I regret to admit, I once drove the leash like a steering wheel. So needlessly stressful! Dogs would stop “for no reason” and I’d yank them along. We missed out on so much! Now when I stop to ‘listen’, they immediately relax and usually continue walking, no yanking required. Other times they insist on showing me the raccoon peeking up from under the board walk, an eagle perched low in the trees, a loose dog heading our way, … And when I have no idea what they’re alerting me to, I tell them I believe them and that seems to satisfy us all.

    • I think we’ve all used our leashes as steering wheels sometimes.

      But you make such a wonderful point about what our pups have to show us if we just pay attention.

      So glad to hear from you and hope you’re doing well.

  7. At bedtime I give all the dogs kisses and say good night. Some don’t mind the kisses and other times they do. I am always having to read their body language on how close I can get to them and whether they want a kiss or not. I’ve been especially negligent of reading Zappa’s cues, like not at all. One day it just struck me when he turned his head away from me. He didn’t want to cuddle. Since then I try to pay attention to what he wants and what he doesn’t. We have worked out a system that if he doesn’t want to cuddle or share kisses, then he will put his head down and let me kiss his forehead. I love compromising!

  8. The language of dogs is spoken ever so softly and is quite subtle. But when you listen, oh my, the rewards are ‘pawsome.’

  9. Such important ideas! I end up carrying Rye on many occasions because she gets scared easily and feels more confident when she’s being carried–my neighbors think I’m crazy carrying a 30-pound dog down the street, but Rye’s happier and that’s the important thing! Thanks for joining the hop!

  10. I regret to admit that I don’t always listen to Ducky, mostly those times when she’s wound-up and unable to chill. That bark of hers gives me headaches. But most times I do, or at least try. Sam’s dementia “episodes” don’t make it easy. Thank goodness, Shadow is very easy to understand. She knows I do my best to listen to her over the Daddy-Ducky noise.

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