Listening to Your Dog

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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?

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Barbara Dobbins has been writing for WDJ since 2011 with a focus on veterinary and canine health topics. Her lifelong fascination with dogs has led her in many directions. As a youngster she would round up her dogs and horse for a day of adventure exploring and searching for buried treasure in the California hills. Inspired by Margaret Mead with a nod to Indiana Jones, she went on to study anthropology, archaeology, and museum studies and obtained a masters degree in art history. Then two new puppies bounced into her life, and Barbara launched into studying animal behavior and training and spent hundreds of hours volunteering in the behavior department at her local shelter. When her beloved Border Collie Daisy was diagnosed with a rare cancer, she dug deep to research all she could about the disease, and has written extensively about all sorts of canine cancer for Whole Dog Journal. Liaising between pet owners and veterinary practice, science, and research, she synthesizes these complex and data-driven subjects into accessible information. She continues to take inspiration from her two research assistants, mixed-breed Tico and Border Collie Parker.

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