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Dog Does Not Want To Be Left Behind

Is he communicating that desire on purpose?
By Karen B. London PhD, August 2018, Updated June 2021

Despite our close relationship, communication between dogs and people has serious limitations. We can only communicate with each other in a very weak approximation of the full depth of either of our languages. Despite our attempts at clarity, there is so much lost in the translation, and it’s not even always obvious whether an action is meant to be communicative. I do believe that love and friendship can be expressed and understood quite well, but less important details can be more confusing to members of both species.

I was considering this fact at the end of a recent vacation. My husband’s brother and his family were preparing to leave my in-law’s house for the 10-hour drive to their own home, so their car was packed with luggage, snacks, pillows, water bottles, crates, dog food and everything else that’s needed for a two-species road trip. Their older dog Tucker jumped into the car long before they were ready to depart and stared us all down. We understood from his actions that he wanted to go along.

Though it was a foregone conclusion to the humans that Tucker would be returning home with them, he probably could not be sure that he was accompanying them until they put him in his crate in the back of the minivan. He had never been left behind at my in-laws’ long term, but he had remained there alone for a few hours when we went out for short outings throughout the vacation. Some dogs have been taught a “You get to go” signal and a “You are not coming” one, but it is not common practice.

Tucker was limited in his ability to let his family know that he wanted to go, and how desperately. Jumping into the car made it quite clear that he wanted to come along, but I wondered exactly what his actions meant. Perhaps Tucker was simply worried about being left behind, and was taking a proactive approach to prevent that. Another possibility was that he was attempting to communicate his desire to go with his family rather than be left behind. Though his behavior made it obvious what he wanted, we couldn’t be sure whether he was intentionally communicating or not.

Has your dog done something that made it clear what she wanted without you being able to determine if she was communicating with you on purpose?

Photo: courtesy the author

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life