Ever had the feeling that you are just not on the same wavelength as your dog, and wondered why? Your dearly beloved doesn’t want for anything. And yet still does exactly what it wants, which is not what you want!
A few apt words from the chorus of Spandau Ballet’s song Communication (March 1983) summarises the sentiment well:
Communication let me down
And I’m left here
Communication let me down
And I’m left here, I’m left here again!
I have long been fascinated by communication, both between humans and animals. If we think that within any transaction (communication in another form) there are always at least four elements:
- What we say to the other person – literally the words we say.
- What we think we have said – inferred in our mannerisms, tone, and body language.
- What the other person hears – the words that you said.
- What the other person thinks you have said – interpreting the mannerism, tone and body language displayed while you were speaking.
That is a complex paradigm for humans to interpret, translate and get the right answer at the best of times. And yet we often expect our dogs to be mind readers without establishing the building blocks of communication with a creature that cannot ask for clarification – not verbally anyway.
Saying that many decades ago the first Weimaraner that I worked was a joy to be with as we had developed a great working rapport and she rarely let me down in the field. As the relationship and mutual trust grew, she occasionally took my instruction, looked at me with an expression that displayed that awesome Australian phrase ‘Oh yeah mate! …… naah’.
Which literally means I understand exactly what you have asked me, but if you think I am doing that it is just not going to happen because I know what you don’t! (as in, my nose is telling me something that you are not aware of, so keep quiet and trust me). She did make me giggle, but then we had established a great relationship that quietly grew into a satisfying mutual trust in each other that lasted for many enjoyable years.
So, how do we successfully establish a method of communication that creates a satisfying rapport with our animals?
Firstly, do not be anthropomorphic! Young dogs would have grown up in a pack existing around the daily jeopardy of placating the leaders so that they were not attacked and hoping that their Mother was not too far down the pack hierarchy as there might not be enough food to stretch down to their level. All packs feed in hierarchical order from top bitch and dog downwards to ensure the survival of the fittest genes within the pack. That is just the biological basis of behaviour, and dogs are still predisposed to conform to this psyche.
My late Father was a veterinary surgeon, and I can still remember being fascinated when he was asked to operate on an African wild dog (Lycaon pictus, or Cape hunting dog) at a safari park. I cannot remember the circumstances, but I do remember being fascinated standing for hours watching the rest of the pack and how they interacted. What I later appreciated was that apparently, they differentiated their feeding habits from other wild carnivores in that their young were allowed to feed first.
How ever we view our tame carnivores, food and feeding, is the overarching impetus behind their young demeanour. We are kind enough that their inherent jeopardy is removed from the necessity of finding enough food for them to survive. Careful and compassionate reintroduction of the element of jeopardy will significantly speed up the communication process and assist with the transition from puppy to sociable adult dog so that you can both enjoy each other’s company in any circumstances.
Just think about it. As soon as you go to get the food bowl, what does the dog do? You have not said anything as such, nor do you need too, because the dog has learnt rapidly by the repetition of your behaviour just what the appearance of the bowl means.
Utilising your dog’s natural desire to eat will painlessly help you to short-circuit the speed at which your dog learns to communicate with you and become a sociable member of your family (if you have more than one dog this also applies to their pack). This applies equally to a family pet, or a dog that is destined for the field or competitions. The basic building blocks of communication are the same.
It is essential to remember that before any training begins you have allowed more time than you think you might need. All dogs, like people, learn at a different pace so always build in enough time to ensure that your dog can ‘achieve’.
It does not matter what the objective of that achievement is but remember to finish on a success. Finishing ALL training exercises, however minor, on a success is a mantra that should govern all aspects of your training. This is so that the dog remembers your pleasure from its achievement and cannot wait to replicate that fun. Remember that as far as any young dog is concerned you are the pack leader and in the wild displeasure might get it ostracised, not allowed to eat, or even killed. To get the most compliant fun from your dog that memory of successful enjoyable training is vital for your dog’s progression.
Perhaps the most pertinent question should first be ‘what are the objectives?’.
Initially, communication will be with your voice but be aware that the tone of your voice resonates more with your dog that the actual words we say. Remembering to convey pleasure with the tone of your voice when training young animals ensures a steady progression towards owning a dog that is fun to be with.
Another point that is important to remember is that the dog will be looking at what your body language is ‘saying’ (displaying) when speaking to it. The combination of your body language and your tone of voice must both display that you are pleased and excited that the dog has done what you wanted.
Conversely, displaying your displeasure with your dog for a misdemeanour by lowering the tone of your voice is often enough to make them think and listen to you. Remember that in any wild pack a young dog can easily be killed (or worse still, ostracised) by a more dominant animal if it breaks the ‘rules’ of the pack. As with the desire to eat, young dogs are predisposed to conform to pack norms as dictated by the dominant bitch, and to a lesser extent the dominant male.
Before any training exercise takes place consider the fundamental stages of progression when communicating with your dog. These stages have historically proved consistently reliable when creating a sociable animal that is adept in any circumstances.
These five stages mean that once your dog has learnt the final stage of responding appropriately to the whistle, you can revert to the earlier stages if circumstances dictate. For example, you have forgotten your whistle! Or, you are working with wind and rain blowing towards you, and therefore sound is blowing away from your dog, so it physically cannot hear you and expecting compliance is unreasonable. That is where instilling good habits of teamwork with your dog so that it looks at you for further guidance if unsure, and you can utilise hand signals to continue to communicate.
1. Voice only
a) As I have explained earlier, the tone of your voice combined with your body language plays the largest part in successfully communicating with your dog. Once the relationship and understanding evolves with your dog you will find that you can use nearly any word (of command) because the tone conveys the message.
b) Ensure that the words that you are using are unambiguous and ensure that there is not any excuse for your dog to misunderstand what you want it to do.
c) The other crucial factor to remember is that the dog’s name is not a word of command. ‘Harry, COME’ said with authority in your voice and the emphasis on the command (in this case ‘come’), is an appropriate command that you can reasonably expect your dog to obey. ‘Harry! Harry! Harry will you get here, NOW!’ is an often-heard expression that the dog is just as happy to ignore, as your tone of voice just conveys your frustration and lack of a precise command that should illicit a positive response.
2. Voice and hand signals
a) Hand signals have to be clear, concise, and not open to misinterpretation and only used for their specified commands. These are normally:
i. A raised right hand with a vertically extended arm for ‘stop’. This is generally understood to mean ‘sit’, and do not move until I tell you to do something else.
ii. Both arms extended at right-angles to your body for ‘come’.
iii. Individual arms at right-angles to the body for ‘go left, or right’
3. Hand signals only
a) The commands above, but also utilising your body language to reinforce what is required.
b) ‘Come’ should be combined with an effusive display of praise and pleasure.
c) ‘Stop or sit’ needs to be combined with an overbearing slightly threatening demeanour. You need to convey that an instant response is required, without negotiation or query.
4. Hand and whistle signals
a) As with hand signals, whistle commands also have to be clear, concise, and not open to misinterpretation.
i) A raised right hand with a vertically extended arm combined with a single long blast on the whistle for ‘stop’
ii) Both arms extended at right-angles to your body combined with six rapid pips on the whistle for ‘come’
iii) Individual arms at right-angles to the body combined with two pips on the whistle for ‘go left, or right’. The premise is to use this combination when your dog is hunting, or retrieving, but you want the dog to look at you for further instructions. In other words, ‘you are not doing anything wrong, but you are in the wrong place’
5. Whistle only
a) Normally restricted to the ‘stop’ and ‘come, or a recall’ commands as detailed above.
Illustration by Inkerman Creative for LPA
So, how to utilise food to speed up communication with your dog?
Firstly, we need to think about our objectives from the training.
Initially we need to be ensuring that the ‘SIT’ instruction is learnt. This then evolves fairly rapidly into the ‘sit… and WAIT (until I tell you to do something else)’. This in turn evolves into the final objective of ‘sit, mental pause to ensure concentration on you, and wait…… walking away while still maintaining eye contact with your dog, and then COME’ said with lots of enthusiasm in your voice and demeanour, and effusive praise when the dog arrives.
The whole point of this progressive learning process is to ensure that your dog knows that when it reaches you, you are happy to see it. This learnt behaviour should then translate to challenging circumstance when you are in the great outdoors with lots of distractions, and you need your dog back beside you. For instance, when approaching a road or other hazard to you and your dog.
Reiterating my earlier statement that your dog rapidly knows what is going to happen when the food bowl appears. That is acquired behaviour and not something you have had to teach it. So, that being the case, we can capitalise on that learnt behaviour to educate your dog to become a sociable animal that is fun to be with and not a nuisance or a potential danger to others.
Now that you understand the objectives, we need to instigate the steady progression each time the dog is fed.
This should start as soon as your puppy has become accustomed to its new environment. The earlier that you start, the sooner you have a dog that everyone can enjoy.
It is worth introducing a command at this point that ensure that the dog knows it has completed its allotted task and is free to eat. This can be any word or phrase, but it is only used in relation to food. Remember that all puppies are predisposed to obey the pack leader, or they are liable to suffer retribution which often means they do not eat. Therefore, they instinctively know that compliance is much safer for them than rebellion, and we can utilise that to the mutual benefit that they get fed and you get a dog that is fun to be around because it listens to you.
If you have a bowl of food in your hand held in front of your dog and move it from the floor up to your waist your dog will naturally follow it with its head. So, kneel down next to your dog with the bowl in one hand, and as you move it upwards and the head follows the movement say ‘SIT’ and gently push the dogs back end to the floor with your other hand. Initially momentary contact with the floor is required before you feed it. You will find that very soon the dog will be sitting as the food bowl appears.
Once the dog is happy with the ‘sit’, you should move on to the ‘sit and WAIT’ This is accomplished by standing in front of your dog with bowl in one hand and extending your other hand towards your dog with the fingers extended up at right-angles to your arm say ‘WAIT’ (Visualise an old fashioned traffic policeman telling you to stop) and walk your body backwards away from the dog (not too far at first – so that you are always achieving success), place the bowl on the floor and say your command telling it that it is now allowed to eat. Do not forget to praise your dog while it eats.
Over time extend the distance, but always ensuring that you finish on a success so that the dog always remembers the joyous moments of being with you. Should the dog move before you say, restart the exercise again but then move away a shorter distance. This ensures that you always achieve the mantra of finishing on a success.
You will now see that the ‘sit and wait’ can soon be extended to ‘sit and wait (gradually extending the waiting time) … and COME’ Praise the dog effusively when it arrives, and feed it utilising your command telling it that it is allowed to eat.
This should make life a lot easier when you are out with your dog and need it back by your side whatever the reason. The message that you have instilled is that it is more fun to be with you, and that you like it so much you are going to keep feeding it!
Remember that it is much easier to engender good habits, rather than get help to correct bad habits.