My Dog No Longer Thinks I’m a Moron

For the last 10 months, my dog, Layla, has thought that I’m a clueless, blubbering moron. I say "stay" when I mean "come," I say "jump" when I mean "lay down," and I say "nibble playfully at my hand" when I mean "walk next to my knee in a dignified manner."

But I just finished reading a remarkable book about dog training that has turned my communication style completely around.  Now Layla understands most of what I say the first time, and has begun treating me with a good deal more respect.

Next month, I hope to learn how to say in Doglish, "Stop dragging me down the street just because that studly Bijon Frise is peeing in his front yard."

What Does This Have to Do with Marketing?

In the old days of dog training, things were simple. The process had three steps:

1. Tell the dog what to do.

2. Hit the dog (or yank on its leash, or yell at it) if it disobeyed.

3. Praise the dog for doing it right.

Three problems with this approach:

1. The dogs were terrified of us, and spent more energy avoiding beatings than trying to please us.

2. The dogs had no idea what we wanted, because we had no way to lead them to correct behavior.

3. The dogs often became adversarial and dangerous.

As human beings advanced, we figured out that there was an easier, more effective way.  We learned it from dolphin and falcon trainers, who couldn’t very well punish their animals.  They could train only with rewards.

So now Operant Conditioners (the most common school is "clicker training") mold their animals’ behavior by treating them for desired behaviors, and withholding treats for other behaviors.  So I treat Layla every time she sits.  Pretty soon she walks right up to me and sits, hoping for a treat.  So now I say the word "sit" every time she sits, and I give her a treat.  After a while, I only treat her for sitting when I say the word "sit."  Now I’ve accomplished the task: I’ve taught her the meaning of an English word, and that she should obey it.

Teaching Layla English

But Layla sees no reason to listen to me.  Like I said, she thinks I’m an idiot. Here’s why:

I’m spending hours a day trying to teach English to a dog.

I don’t want to brag, but I believe that I’m more intelligent, linguistically, than Layla.  I have a bigger brain.  I have whole circuits devoted to symbolic language. I don’t spend my free time climbing into the dishwasher and licking the dishes.

So why am I knocking myself out teaching her English, a language in which "slow up" and "slow down" have the same meaning?  In which "commence" means to start and to finish?  In which "cleave" means to cut apart and stick together?

It’s because I didn’t realize I could learn her language.  But The Other End of the Leash has taught me the basics.

Howie Learns Doglish

Here’s the first giant revelation: humans are primates. We, and our cousins the chimps and gorillas, communicate very differently from dogs and other canids (that’s the fancy word I learned – it means, "dogs and wolves").  So we naturally "speak" primate to each other, and we understand primate very well. But when we speak primate to dogs, they think we’re nuts.

For example, primates show dominance by making lots of noise. (Remember the chimp in the Jane Goodall documentary who discovered how to bang on oil drums and quickly became alpha male?)  Dogs show dominance by their silence – it’s usually the nervous/frightened/longing dog who’s doing all the barking and howling.

Another example – primates like face-to-face contact when greeting. Eye contact, kissing, shaking hands, hugging – these are all variations on how humans, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos greet one another.  Dogs and wolves, on the other hand, greet and acknowledge each other in a more sideways fashion, sniffing butts.

One last example – showing affection. Primates use their arms to show affection – holding hands, hugging, walking arm in arm, putting their arms on each others’ shoulders.  Canids use their forepaws in much the same way, but with a very different message: dominance.  Putting your arm around your dog signals to her that you have a higher ranking than her, and therefore priority access to important resources.

So now when I want Layla to sit, or stay, or come, I use my body like a dog would.  I lean, I use eye contact, I use noises and cadences.  And here’s the absolutely mind-blowing thing: she obeys, without any training.  She understands me, because I’m finally speaking her language.

Are you marketing in You-lish or They-lish?

When I start marketing a product, I naturally start by talking to myself.  I write sales copy that appeals to my values. I argue the price/value question in ways that I find convincing.  I use layouts and pictures that affect me.

Bad Howie.

Unless my market is very much like me (which rarely happens, believe me), I’m going to fail. 

I’m speaking Gorilla-ish to Dogs.  To me, I’m saying "Buy my stuff," but they hear, "Run away! I’m a Dork."

I’m not going to succeed in teaching my prospects Howie-lish.  If I want to communicate with them, I have to learn their language.

How do I go about learning their language?

First, I do research.  I read what they read.  If they’re online, I visit their websites and newsgroups. I see how others are successfully marketing to them.  I find out as much as I can about how much money they make, where they live, how old they are, how many kids in college, etc.  Basic Demographics and Psychographics.

I interview some of them. I find out what’s on their minds. I try to sell them on the product and capture all their objections.

Next, I go through some thought exercises. I imagine myself living their lives, having their problems, dreaming their dreams.  The art of marketing, at its core, is empathy.

Finally, I start writing like I would talk to them, knowing everything I know.  I may not be perfect, but at least I’m no longer trying to speak Gorilla to a Dog.  And when they sense that I’ve made the effort to bridge the gap and understand them, my prospects often take a step toward me as well.

When market research is too costly or time-consuming or impractical, I fall back on quick and dirty trial and error.  I make two offers, and count which one gets a better response.  That’s my control.  I keep that one, chuck the loser, and create a new one.  Again, I keep the winner and replace the loser.

What I’m really doing, of course, is training myself, rather than trying to train my market.

And that’s why Layla no longer thinks I’m a moron.

Now it’s time to convince my kids.


Properly trained, a man can be a dog’s best friend.
– Corey Ford

There’s facts about dogs, and then there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions. If you want the facts about the dog, always get them straight from the dog. If you want opinions, get them from humans.
– J. Allen Boone

The stupider the peasant, the better the horse understands him.
– Anton Chekhov

“I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.”
– Mark Twain

It’s important to talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they’ll say, "God, he said exactly what I was thinking." And when they begin to respect you, they’ll follow you to the death.
– Lee Iacocca

Marketing Motivators on Learning Doglish

1. Dan Kennedy has a list of 10 questions you must consider before starting to market.  His big one: "What keeps your prospects awake at night?"  How could you find out the answer to that question?  Start by listing the things that keep you awake at night.  Who would you confide about those things? Under what circumstances?  Can you get your prospect to confide in you?

2. Spend an hour playing with a toddler.  Don’t try to accomplish anything except that both of you have fun.  What skills must you practice and hone in order to accomplish this?

3. Start noticing really bad ads that try to sell things you are likely to buy.  TV commercials, radio spots, yellow pages ads, newspaper and magazine ads.  Notice that they speak to you in the wrong language.  Take an ad and rewrite it so that it does speak to you.

Bonus Quotes

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.
– Mel Brooks

I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, and then I thought: What the hell good would that do?
– Ronnie Shakes

Did you ever notice when you blow in a dog’s face he gets mad at you? But when you take him in a car he sticks his head out the window!
– Steve Bluestone

After twelve years of therapy my psychiatrist said something that brought tears to my eyes. He said, ‘No hablo ingles.’
– Ronnie Shakes

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