Whole Dog Journal's Blog May 1, 2012

Listening to Your Dog

Posted at 03:33PM - Comments: (19)

Duncan wakes me this morning as he usually does: with a jump onto the bed and a cool damp nose gently touching my cheek. I respond as I usually do: “Okay, give me a minute.” I wrestle to open my still sleep-induced eyes and start to get out of bed.  I glance at the clock – because that’s what morning does – makes one acutely aware of time. But wait! It’s only 1:28! I tell Duncan, “No way!” and pull the covers back up. He seems to accept this and goes back to sleep himself.

Duncan is a 10-year-old rangy 60-pound B&W Border Collie.  We’ve known each other since he was 5 1/2 weeks old. I think I know him pretty well, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped listening to him.

About eight months ago, Duncan began waking me up between 4:00-5:00 AM every morning.  At first I thought he needed to go out to eliminate, and that he would do, because he is such a good boy. We’d go back to bed, but he couldn’t settle down. I’d cue him to “Go settle” and he would harrumph, move to the foot of the bed and wait 10 minutes. He had figured out that 10 minutes was the length of time on the snooze button – I had my very own organic alarm clock. The only problem was that it was programmed to go off at his set time, not mine.

It was one of those bleary-eyed mornings that I decided to go ahead with feeding him and his sister. After gobbling up their breakfast, I asked if they wanted to go back to bed. I know I did, it was 4:00AM! They scampered up the stairs and plopped themselves back on the bed. I crawled in between the 110 pounds of fur and the three of us were snoozing happily in minutes.

Before I realized it, Duncan had me trained in a new routine: he will softly nudge me awake some time between 3:00-5:00 am, at which point I get up with both dogs, take them outside, feed them and we all return to bed. (This process takes all of eleven minutes.)

When I shared this behavior with fellow trainer friends, they looked at me like I was nuts. Actually, it wasn’t just trainers; everyone I told thought I was nuts to be getting up to feed my dogs at those hours. And I may well be, but at least I understand why.

For those of you with herding dogs, you know that these dogs can power nap and the lack of daylight is of no obstacle when there is a job to be done. This particular job just happened to entail getting fed. I came to realize that Duncan was telling me he really needed to eat at this time. As soon as that need is met, he is as happy as a Border Collie with a ball.

I did try experimenting with feeding him very late at night, first at 10 PM, then 11 PM, then midnight; I gave him snacks before bed. I tried ignoring. I tried extinguishing the behavior. I even thought the routine might be disrupted when he went to stay with his dad while I spent three weeks in Africa. I had to wonder if it was just the relationship between a girl and her dog. I was secretly pleased when my ex-husband told me Duncan was waking him early every morning. It wasn’t me after all!

Our dogs are governed by our routines of when we get up, when we leave, when we have time to take them out to play. Duncan waits at home for me to return. He can’t come and go as he pleases. He can’t decide to go for a walk by himself. He can’t decide it’s time to go visit his buddies. He’s completely dependent on me to decide when he gets to do what. And then what if I’m typing away at the computer like I am now? He patiently waits for me to finish my thoughts because he trusts that I will try to fulfill his needs. Even if that means getting up at 3 AM.

Our dogs have only us. And we control almost every aspect of their lives. Duncan does have control over one thing: telling me what he needs.

We have the opportunity to listen. What does your dog tell you?

Comments (19)

This just happened tonight with our pup, Tip. Normally when he needs to go out, he'll stand at the door and whine, or he will lean against you. He usually sleeps through the night, but he woke me up at midnight by basically jumping on me. He would put all of his weight into it and would just press up against me until I woke up. So I got up and took him out thinking he just needed to potty. And then when we went back to bed, he wouldn't lie down. He kept going back and forth between the bed and the door. Finally I googled, "dog woke me up in the middle of the night with restlessness," and your post came up. I took him out to the kitchen and I fed him, and brought his favorite bone to the bedroom. He's been fine ever since! Thank you so much!

Posted by: Maddie | January 8, 2016 12:50 AM    Report this comment

This is a great post. I think that way too many of us - dog parents, trainers, professionals - don't even consider that the dog may have their own agenda, their own thoughts and their own reality. Even with love in our hearts, we impose our structure upon them completely and don't even pause to consider if our interpretation of 'what should be' is what the dog would chose for themselves. Yes, there are limits to what we can accommodate, but those limits need to be skewed a little further towards the dog and less towards our own sense of convenience.

Posted by: Amanda M | September 18, 2012 4:12 PM    Report this comment

This was great. Every dog I ever had the priviledge of befriending always seemed to have a special language that once learned made their life and mine so much better. I may have paid the bills, bought the food and maintained our home, but I certainly didn't own them in the sense that only my opinions mattered. Anyone that has gone through a life changing event knows the worth of their pet. During our darkest times, it is the look they give us that says "don't worry I'm here, I'll listen, I won't comment or criticize, and we will make it through this together"

Posted by: keller1312 | June 15, 2012 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I thought this article was wonderful. I have two long haired miniture Dauchshunds and they can be very demanding but also very in tune with what is going on around them. My little female millie came running out of my mom's room when her aide arrived. At first I thought she was barking because someone was here, but then she ran back in my mom's room and came running back out barking like crazy. We realized that she was trying to tell us something was wrong with mom. When we went into mom's room she was having chest pain and we realized she was having a heart attack. If it weren't for millie my mom might have died that day. Thanks Millie!

Posted by: ScoobyDoo2300001 | May 27, 2012 9:39 AM    Report this comment

I think there is a middle ground here. I have had dogs all my life, and did not believe that dominance was ever needed. My Dad was nicknamed Dog-man by the Inuit because of his unusually strong rapport with their sled dogs. He taught me that by loving understanding of the dog's needs they could be trained to be respectful companions. If my dog wakes me too early I make sure that all is well, and then go back to sleep. No rewards for waking me up, but no punishment either. By feeding the dog you are the one giving the reward, and being trained to do so by the dog.

Posted by: Unknown | May 26, 2012 10:54 PM    Report this comment

Great article. I am glad to see that more and more people are getting over the "domination dance" and realizing that, although not human, our dogs definitely are people. They have their own "language" and we owe it to them to listen to it. I have "listened" to my dogs since we've been together and I have rarely regretted it. Twice it even saved my life. My two white shepherd will often individually or as a pair wake me early. On other occasions they will patiently wait, when on week-ends, I sleep past their usual feeding time. We listen to each other and it works out fine.

Posted by: R.W. P | May 24, 2012 6:55 PM    Report this comment

I just want to say that i love this story we can learn so much from our fur-kids if we would just listen.

Posted by: Unknown | May 23, 2012 11:29 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the great article. Interestingly, I have noticed that those who have to always be dominant and don't really listen to their pets rarely listen to other people either.

Posted by: Peter G | May 23, 2012 2:15 PM    Report this comment

I appreciated this article since I have a dog who figured out at an early age that I would try to take care of him if he let me know what he needed. When he was a puppy, he quickly picked up on the training to ring a bell on the door when he wanted to go out. But in no time he realized that the bell was a way of getting my attention, and when I responded to it, he would then lead me to what he really wanted - water in his bowl, the door so he could go outside to investigate a sound, his cookie jar, whatever. He doesn't always get what he wants, but he seems to feel it is worthwhile to at least let me know. He also gets me up in the middle of the night to go outside because he is on medication that makes him drink a lot of water, and by signaling me with a bell on my bedroom door, he conveys a sense of urgency that is different than if he is just restless next to me on the bed. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what kind of relationship they have with their dog. My dog can be a pain, but I am proud of our ability to communicate with each other.

Posted by: Kathi | May 23, 2012 10:14 AM    Report this comment

I am thrilled to hear the positive responses to this article. I love the comment about not wasting our time with these amazing animals trying to be alpha. It is such a richer experience for all to get over the alpha game and be "guardian, friend and companion". People who only respond to their dogs by asserting, dominating and disciplining may mean well and perhaps they have no other choice since they are clearly not on a truly companion level with their dogs. As many here realize, a dog truly can be a person's best friend as a companion and NOT a chattel or a subject. Your dog may have something different in mind than you do, but that doesn't make her wrong. I have yet to encounter an issue with any of my long line of German Shepherds that couldn't be worked out by listening to each other, and treating each other as companions instead of master and slave. That is the most wonderful of experiences if people would just dare to listen. Thanks for listening to me. My dogs wrote this. I just typed it for them.

Posted by: miles | May 23, 2012 12:50 AM    Report this comment

This is cute ... but not funny. Once you establish that the dog is not waking you because of some illness or injury, then the dog has to be re-trained to sleep through the night. You tell them "It's not time yet. Go sleep!" Repeat a couple of times, and (once they know it), if they still try to wake you, it's time to crate them or put them out of the room. A few days of that, and they will get back on track.

Posted by: Cynthia M | May 22, 2012 7:23 PM    Report this comment

I would be very unhappy if my dogs woke me up in the middle of the night and would and do make exceptions for a sick pet, but on a regular basis? No way! I need to be awake in the morning and have trouble falling back to sleep. I don't know what I would do but I would definitely not give in and go feed the dog. I would hope it would stop or the dog would have to sleep somewhere else, not my bedroom.

Posted by: kimfatty | May 22, 2012 4:24 PM    Report this comment

Loved this so much, read it with a smile. Everyone thinks I'm nuts because my boy Buddy does the same thing. It's so nice to know there are other "crazies" like us out there that love and listen to our pups :)

Posted by: mygsdsrule | May 22, 2012 1:48 PM    Report this comment

This is exactly what happened to me with my lab mix Bode. He started getting me up earlier and earlier each night until it was a consistant 1am. We would get up, I would let him out to tinkle, then let him up on the bed so he would go back to sleep. I thought there had to be something wrong, so after running up a $200 vet bill,the vet concluded he just wanted to sleep on my bed. You see, he and his sister have quite a comfortable bed on the floor. Which is where they are suppose to sleep because of my allergies. But, if he gets up at night, I would let him up on the bed to get him to go right back to sleep. Boy did he train me well! After a few nights of not giving in, he went back to his normal routine of sleeping on his bed through the night.

Posted by: KELLI B | May 22, 2012 12:10 PM    Report this comment

Not only do I completely agree with this article, I love the comments that follow. I wrestled with the Alpha role too, being a first-time dog person to my rescued Chiweenie. But she hung in there with me, letting me know that she is her own entity. We now share a funny little existence, she and I, that I think only we understand. It's precious and I'll always respect her for showing me that my reality is not the only one out there.

Posted by: Pam English | May 22, 2012 11:48 AM    Report this comment

I agree - listening is so important. Spencer is a little (50 lbs.) black and white rescue dog who has been with us for almost seven months. For awhile when he first came to live with us, he got up every morning around 1:00 am, wanting to go out. I was afraid not to take him out, so I did, and he did his business and then we would both go back to bed until morning. Now, those middle of the night trips to the backyard are few and far between and he has settled in quite well.

Renee L.

Posted by: Renee L | May 22, 2012 11:13 AM    Report this comment

I didn't listen to Jedi when she frantically asked to leave the car as we drove at the limit on Highway 50. She was a well-behaved adult Golden-Labrador mix who adored car trips. I couldn't fathom what had gotten into her -- until a few minutes later when she could no longer hold in her explosive diarrhea.

As Golden-Labrador mixes are prone to do, Jedi had eaten something that didn't agree with her. To make matters worse, she was in my boy friend's brand new car. His reaction -- concern for my dog instead of the mess in his car -- cemented our relationship. In the end, Jedi fully recovered, and I'm still with the boy friend (now my husband) 25 years later.

Now, make sure I listen when dogs tell me they need to go out, no matter now inconvenient -- because they probably do!

Posted by: LINDA F | May 22, 2012 10:34 AM    Report this comment

I have had the VERY same issue with my Black Lab. EXACTLY, I was getting up at 3:30 a.m. to take him outside, and then feed him... It was absolutely wrecking my sleep. I know very well, I need to listen to him, but this was really impacting my health and my work. I can't go back to sleep in 15 min. as he can.....so, I just stopped, and guess what? he stopped too.. Now, he and I are together 24/7 -- I work at home, and he is a Service Dog. We go for 2 long walks every day.....I think he was bored.....and this was a great way of getting some attention, and not be shhh'd at that blessed computer!

Posted by: Ann M | May 22, 2012 10:24 AM    Report this comment

This was a wonderful article because it highlights, I do hope, an often unexplored element of our relationship with these wonderful beings in our lives, the moral/spritual element. A minister friend explained it this way years ago, after I had wasted the early part of my Molly's life trying to be The Alpha rather than her guardian, friend, and companion: Molly has value in this universe---and that value has nothing to do with you. My goodness, listening to them as best we can is the least we can do.

Posted by: John W | May 22, 2012 9:43 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In