I was playing fetch with my dog Ziggy one day and he was doing so well retrieving the rubber duck I would throw for him that I decided to video part of his workout and send it to a friend so he could teach his dog what I was teaching Ziggy. I took out my phone, got ready to video, and asked Zig to sit and wait.
When I play a game with my dog, I use that opportunity to teach new things and reinforce previous work. I do not, however, do things that have nothing to do with Ziggy, like talk on the phone. So, of course, Ziggy noticed the phone. Phone in one hand, duck in the other, I toss the duck as far as I can, wait a heartbeat (as Ziggy practices self-control) and tell him “Find it.” And he’s off. He runs straight for the duck, picks it up, and turns to head back to me. I am filming, making sure as he moves that he’s still in the picture. He runs halfway back, drops the duck, hikes his leg and urinates, picks up the duck, and drops it at my feet.
Why did he do that? He had been retrieving perfectly for some time and having a blast doing so. Why this? Why now? To find out the answer, we must think like a dog.
Ziggy, I have to say, does not understand technology, the iPhone in particular. When I looked at my phone, I was not looking at him. Or so he thought. Dogs don’t know you can record their activities, that when you are looking at your screen, you are seeing them. So Ziggy had no idea I was watching him because he saw my attention was elsewhere.
Dogs know when your attention is on them and when it isn’t. They know when you’re daydreaming or window-shopping or wondering what to make for dinner. So Ziggy, who plays a good game of fetch, who plays by the rules, cracked a little joke, because as far as he could tell, I wasn’t watching. Ziggy, not surprisingly, thinks like a dog.
Dogs may act out when you are on the phone at home because you are talking and no one else is around. Like Ziggy, they don’t understand technology and so they may assume you are talking to them. The fact that they do not understand what you are saying or what you may want them to do makes for a stressful situation. When dogs are stressed, they may act out. Some will bark or steal something they know they shouldn’t touch, trying to get your attention, trying for some clarity or purpose.
Eventually, most dogs learn to accept the fact that you occasionally talk what sounds like gibberish and they will go about their business when you are on the phone. Until then, offer a favorite chew or ask them to “Go to place” or teach and use a hand signal for “Down” or “Quiet.”
Whether you’re working, playing, or just hanging out with your dog, it always helps to think about how differently he might assess any given situation and to respond from a vantage point of understanding. A relationship this sweet is worth the effort.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Carol Lea Benjamin is a noted dog trainer, who, in 2002, was elected to The International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame for “a lifetime of dedication to dogs and their training.” She is the author of numerous award-winning books on dog behavior as well as the Shamus Award-winning Rachel Alexander and Dash mystery series. Benjamin lives in New York City with her two dogs, Sky, a Border Collie, and Ziggy, an English Shepherd.
Published March 15, 2021