The Old Trainer: Smart dog might be trying to teach its owner a trick

D EAR OLD TRAINER: When you talk about teaching tricks you say you only teach them to the dogs who tell you they want to learn them. That is an intriguing idea and I have started watching my three dogs closer. I feel Sadie, the youngest one, is trying to communicate with me, but how do I identify it when she does?

Meredith, Mill Valley

DEAR MEREDITH: Dogs communicate with their human all the time.

We recognize a lot of the ways – wagging their tails, wiggling all over when they see us, bringing a favorite toy when they want to play – but many of the attempts are more subtle.

It may be something as minor as staring at you with bright eyes and alert body language, or standing rigid, or – like Lassie telling the adults Timmy fell down the well – running ahead and returning to you. Any time you observe altered body language or behavior, they are talking.

Joker, the border collie who communicates with me the most, just taught me a new trick this month. I got the mail one day and noticed he was staring at me with bright eyes, wagging his tail, and shifting his eyes from me to the mailbox. I know how inquisitive border collies are, so I asked him if he wanted to see what was inside the box. He stood up on his hind legs and gave it a good inspection. I petted him and told him he was a smart boy.

A few days later it dawned on me he was stopping at the neighbor’s mailbox and giving me the stare. I finally figured out what I was supposed to do. I said “mailbox” and gave him a hand signal to stand up and look. It took a few more days to perfect the trick, but now we don’t even need the mailbox. When he wants attention during our walk, he gives me the eye, waits for the command, then stands on his hind legs.

It’s become his favorite trick and he invented it himself. If you are lucky enough to have a dog like Sadie who wants to communicate with you, pay attention. Figure out what she is telling you and let her teach you a few tricks.

DEAR OLD TRAINER: Ralph, our 7-year-old poodle, always has bad breath. The vet says he is healthy and in good shape. The vet cleaned his teeth and it helped for a while, but it costs a lot. I see ads all the time for treats that clean a dog’s teeth. Do they work?

Terry, San Jose

DEAR TERRY: If they do, it is a miracle. There is one dog bone that claims to be “long lasting” and to remove plaque and tartar. I gave one to each of my seven dogs.

One crunch and the bone disappeared. It happened too fast to time on a stopwatch, but my guess is the process of accepting the bone, crunching it and swallowing took 1.1 seconds. Before I got to the second dog, the first dog had finished. If they clean teeth in that amount of time, we should all be chewing them.