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Communicating With Your Dog

Yesterday, Alys and I walked behind a woman with her two small dogs on a leash. What stood out to me, was that she keppt talking at them in a constant stream of words, and in a tone of voice that might make a sensitive dog like Alys duck and cower ("I said no barking stop that this way will you listen now...").

Her dogs however, didn't care one bit, dashing left and right, sniffing here and there and enjoying dog life on the first proper day of spring. They had probably learned that the strange noises coming from their human had no real significance for them

Then there is this dog training course I read about in the paper a few weeks ago. It was a one day course teaching your dog not to pick up things from the street, no matter how yummy. The description put a lot of focus on their use of non-verbal training, exclusively using body language to train your dog.

I'm a big fan of using body language with your dog. Dogs communicate with each other mainly using visual signals, so reacting to your body language comes a lot more natural to a dog than reacting to your words.

If you have ever taught your dog something, let's say "sit", using both a verbal signal and a hand signal, your dog will probably react to the hand signal a lot better than the verbal signal. If you taught it using just the verbal signal, but were not careful, your dog might still react to a visual signal, like your bending forward a little or raising your eyebrow every time you say "sit".

Body language is extremely useful when working with dogs. If you know what your doing, how canine body language works, and have taught yourself control over what you say with your own body, you can communicate with and influence your dog in a way, that almost seems like magic.

However, most people - me included - have gross motor skills when it comes to body language, at least from a canine perspective, and send conflicting signals in a way that will make any dog's head spin. Or, worse, ends up unintentionally threatening them.

And then there is this little fact, that a dog can only react to your body language if she actually pays attention to you.
When your dog is ten meter ahead of you, excitedly sniffing at a dead squirrel, good luck telling her to come just using your body.

So why limit yourself to just verbal signals - like the begleithundeprüfung demands - or just visual signals? One comes more naturally to us, one comes more naturally to our dogs. Seems to me like a healthy mixture of both makes life easier for everyone.

I use a lot of body language to let Alys know what I want from her. And I'm working on being precise and subtle when doing it. Turning away from her when I want her to come, turning towards her when I want her stop. I also use a hand target to prompt her to walk where I need her to go. That's a great help.

It doesn't always work smoothly (yet?) because I might have a bad day, or she might have a bad day. But we continue to work on it, and sometimes it truly does look like a magic little dance, even to me.

But I also use verbal signals. Especially signals that tell my dogs what I'm about to do, not just what I want her to do.
I will call her name to get her attention, to get her to not run too far ahead, to remind her to ask me before she dashes off into a field, or to let her know that I might touch her so she won't be startled.
I tell her "leash" before I clip on or off her leash.
I tell her "paw" to let her know I want to clean one of her paws or disentangle the leash.
I tell her "get dressed/undressed" when I want to put on or take off her harness
I tell her "that way" to let her know I'm changing directions. Not always, though, she's supposed to pay attention after all.
I tell her "stop" before I grab her by her harness to stop her.
I use a verbal marker, verbal praise, and a keep going signal.
Of course I also tell her "sit" and "down" and "here".

I use a lot of words, but I do my best to use them in a way that makes them have meaning for her. I use a lot of body language as well.

Going back to the woman and her two dogs from the beginning of the entry: I in no way mean to say that I think she is a bad dog owner, or that you should never talk in anything but precise signals to your dog. Talking to your dog is a very human thing to do. I frequently catch myself babbling meaningless (for her) things to Alys. I don't think she minds. My tone of voice may actually give her some information as to what I'm saying. And sometimes I even do it intentionally because saying what I want helps me be clearer in my accompanying body language.

My point is, I don't believe in limiting yourself to one means of communication with your dog. I believe if communicating with him in any way that helps you understand each other and cooperate. That helps you work with your dog, not against him. It's a lot of work, on self awareness more than anything else, but it makes your time together so much more relaxed and fun.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2016 11:08 pm (UTC)
On the rare occasions that I had direct contact with a dog (I usually keep a certain distance; not because I'm afraid, but because I fear a dog that doesn't know me might find my entering their space intrusive) and they did something I wasn't too fond of, I automatically used both my voice and my body to let them know what I wanted from them. For all the reasons you mention. It just made the most sense to me. Also, if a dog develops a hearing issue due to old age or an ear infection, having body language expressions at hand might be quite useful, and verbal commands help if a dog's eyesight wanes. If you're surrounded by a lot of noise, gestures make more sense than screaming. Dogs hear too good sometimes, and I remember a friend's dog that sort of shut out all noises if there were too many, including her voice.
I think one should try both ways and focus on the one the dog seems to prefer, but not ignore the less popular option.

Give Alys a treat from me. I'm sure she deserves it.
Apr. 13th, 2016 02:09 pm (UTC)
More people should care that much about whether a dog actually wants to initiate contact. I believe most dogs are fine with it, but I'm sure they do prefer to be asked before a stranger puts their big paw on the top of their head.

Both body language and tone of voice can* be very intuitive for a dog and help them understand what it is you want or don't want them to do, even if they didn't learn any particular signal for this kind of situation.

*I say "can" because sometimes our intuitive body language is very counter-intuitive to a dog, like walking straight towards them and looking at them to initiate contact. It's very friendly and polite in primate societies, but very rude and potentially threatening behaviour from a dog's point of view.

And, yes, having both, a verbal and a visual signal may come in handy when the dog is unable to react to one or the other for whatever reason.

Alys always deserves treats, because she is an awesome little lady who loves treats. ;)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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