Recently we learned a new skill on the boat. As with most things, it got me thinking about dogs. And how important it is for us to use the right words to talk to them.
A New Language
When I first learned to sail, all the new words and phrases perplexed me: halyards, boom, reaching, sheets, yawing, etc. Sailing was a new language that I had no chance of ever making sense of.
Until I did.
Now I understand how important it is to use precise language aboard a boat. The last thing you need when the wind is blowing your boat over at a harsh angle is to hear your captain barking, “Grab that thingamabob beside you and let it loose.”
Much better to hear, “Ease the mainsheet.”
Especially since it will result in a more comfortable ride in a matter of seconds rather than a prolonged argument in high winds while everyone hangs on to their seats.
Our recent experience with imprecise language wasn’t dangerous. But it was frustrating.
And it helped me understand that puzzled look I sometimes see on my dog Honey’s face.
A New Skill
Until recently, we either anchored our boat or pulled into a marina for a night.
But our arrival in St. Augustine, Florida gave us a new opportunity: picking up a mooring ball.
For less than half the price of a marina slip, we could tie our boat to a floating ball anchored to the river bottom. We’d also get access to the marina’s shower, laundry, and a free (pet-friendly) launch to pick us up and drop us off.
One problem. We had never picked up a mooring before.
All I had to do was to bring the boat right beside the mooring ball while accounting for wind and current and bring it to a stop (without brakes) while my husband Mike snagged a ring with a boat hook, tied a line to it, and tied it off to our boat.
Of course, I had just read the biography of a cruising couple who sailed the world for fifty years on an engineless sailboat. And it recounted the story of the captain falling overboard while trying to grab a mooring ball.
So it wasn’t a no-brainer. And we were understandably nervous about trying something new.
We called the marina on the radio to ask for the location of the mooring they had assigned us. The dock master replied that we should snag ball 16 “behind the white, two-masted sailboat.”
Almost immediately we were in trouble.
For one thing, the numbers on the balls were hidden in the waves. For another thing, there were two white, double-masted sailboats in front of us—Mike was looking at one and I only saw the other.
While we bickered over where the marina wanted us, the dock master observed our hesitation through his binoculars and clarified, “Behind the schooner, not the ketch.”
Yeah, thanks. Using the precise term the first time would have helped.
But the dock master was also sloppy when he told us to moor “behind” the schooner. If we were parallel parking, “behind” would mean to park our vessel so the bow (or front) was facing the stern (back) of the other boat. So that’s what we did.
But once we picked up the mooring, we saw the number on the ball’s side: seven. Not sixteen. Apparently, the dock master wanted us on the other side of the schooner from his seat in the dock office. Or abeam of the schooner.
The position we had chosen was abaft of the schooner.
Luckily the dock master had an eraser so he took our name off the reservation for mooring ball sixteen and added it to the reservation for mooring ball seven.
But how much easier would our experience have been if he had used the proper nautical terms?
Use the Right Words With Your Dog
What does all this boat talk have to do with dogs?
Do you listen to yourself asking or telling your dog to do something? Or if you’re perfect and precise in your communication, to strangers on the street?
How do most people call their dogs to come to them?
“Sparky. Spaaaaaaaarky. SPARKY!”
For now, let’s forget that many dogs don’t even know their names. What about calling a dog’s name tells him to come? Especially when you use the name many other times throughout the day for other reasons.
And have you ever noticed the most common cue people use with their dogs? For many dogs, it’s “no.”
“No” when the dog sniffs too long. “No” when the dog tries to scarf down a chicken bone. “No” when the dog jumps up on someone’s lap. “No” when the dog starts to pee on the kids.
Talking to Honey
Strangers who want to give Honey a treat are the worst.
The friendly store owner says, “Sit” and Honey plants her butt on the ground so firmly you can hear a little thud. Then she pops back up again.
The bearer of treats says sweetly, “No, sit.”
Again, Honey sits and in the microsecond before the person gives the treat, Honey is back on her feet.
Now the dog-lover with the treat is getting frustrated. Because they love and know a lot about dogs. And they think it’s bad to give a treat to a dog unless she does something for it first.
What they don’t know is that Honey did exactly what they asked her to do, “sit.” What they didn’t ask her to do is “stay.”
Honey is a literal-kinda dog. I think she’ll end up majoring in English.
Unluckily for Honey, I no longer allow strangers to give her treats. It’s not worth their happiness to mess up my beautifully trained dog.
Sleeping with the Enemy
Of course, it’s not only strangers who use the wrong words when talking to my dog.
Honey and I have been known to share a bed with a handsome, dark-haired guy who does it all the time.
No, it’s not Pierce Brosnan. Go ahead. Keep guessing. I’ll never tell.
Anyway, Handsome Dude tells Honey “up” when he wants her to:
- jump up on the settee,
- put her front paws on the top step of the companionway so he can lift her into the cabin,
- walk up the ramp onto the boat, and
- jump from the dock to the boat.
These are the actual cues I’ve taught Honey for all those behaviors, in order:
- paws up
- go aboard (or go ashore when we’re leaving the boat)
It’s like I have a different cue for everything!
And Honey listens very well. Once she knows what we’re asking her for.
Funny how that works.
So if your dog isn’t listening to you, maybe he’s being stubborn. Or just dumb.
Or maybe you just aren’t using the right words to talk to him.
Your Turn: Are you careful about using the same words every time when you want your dog to do something? Does it help?