November's 2012 Tip: What Are You Saying To Your Dog! (Part 1)
Do dogs listen better if you yell at them? How much of what you say does your dog understand? What does your tone of voice tell your dog? Is your voice the only way you talk to your dog? Communicating effectively is an art that deepens every relationship.
Body Language First, Words Second
A dog's first and most natural language is body language. People have this language, too, though body movements of dogs and body movements of humans can have different meanings. As you and your dog become more and more familiar with each other's body language, your communication will get better and better.
When you are consistent with the body movements you use around your dog, the dog will learn to read your signals. It's important that you be aware of the signals you are giving. Use a mirror, your reflection in a glass window, or even a video camera to check yourself and see what your dog sees. Then you can refine meaningful body language signals to communicate with your dog.
Words become a "second language" to dogs. They won't speak words-or if they do learn some words, won't speak many! But like a human child too young to speak, dogs can pick up a lot of words when people use them consistently. Unlike the human child, your dog is unlikely to develop a sophisticated understanding of grammar. It is also unlikely that dogs "think" in words.
What this means is that your dog might be able to associate a few words with each other to pick up a new meaning, once you've established a clear meaning for each of those words. Let's say that your dog has learned to "fetch" the "ball," to "hold" the ball, and to "go to Sally." With patience you can probably communicate with the dog to string those behaviors together. A dog that has learned to fetch to you could be directed instead to go get the ball and carry it to Sally.
The dog will not understand words for things or actions that are outside the dog's experience, but it can be pretty astonishing what things the dog does pick up from experience. We understand only a fraction of what our dogs know about their world. Their ability to read body language, see in the dark, hear sounds outside the range we can hear and detect scents we can only guess at-all of this means that you and your dog, standing side by side, live in two very different worlds.
In most cases when we think a dog lacks intelligence, the dog simply views the world so differently that we're not managing to communicate. Some dogs manage to bridge the communication gap in spite of dense humans! But the more we can help them, the richer our relationships with dogs become.
Not all dogs have had the same experiences, and not all dogs start with the same physical ways of perceiving the world. Different dogs have different eye structures with different visual abilities. They have different levels of scenting ability. Like humans, some dogs have disabilities in sight, scent and hearing. Dogs can also have brain damage that limits their ability to learn.
Each dog you live with will be an individual. Don't make the huge mistake of expecting every dog to be able to learn the same things or to learn at the same pace. Two dogs are just as different from each other as two humans-more so if they are of two different breeds. Getting to know THIS dog is the task at hand, and you'll learn new things from each new dog. You'll keep learning throughout the dog's whole life, and so will the dog. That's why old dogs are the best dogs. They know so much.
Humans like to vary their words. Using the same word over and over irritates the human ear. As a result, it takes concentration and practice for a handler to learn to use the same word every time for the dog to understand it. A dog can learn nuances and different words for the same behavior, but people will mix words in ways that the dog simply can't follow.
An exceptional dog may eventually figure out what you want by watching your body language or by being around you long enough to realize that "off," "down," "quit It," "stop jumping on me," "knock it Off," and "hey, your feet are dirty!" all mean the same thing to you. But expecting the dog to unravel all this confusing language and to respond reliably is terribly unfair to the dog. Stick to one consistent word for the behavior, and your dog will learn so much faster.
What Does this Word Mean?
If you've taught your dog to sit, test what this word really means to your dog. How do you normally position your body when you say the word? Try it with your body in a different position. If you're normally standing when you say it, try sitting on the ground and saying "sit" to your dog. Try lying down. Does the dog respond the normal way?
What do you usually do with your eyes, your arms, your hands, your shoulders, and the rest of your body when you say "sit"? Change those body movements and see if your dog still responds to the word. Odds are you'll have a puzzled dog!
To help your dog understand a word in the widest number of circumstances, you'll need to practice-and reward!-in all possible situations. This includes not only your body positions, but also a variety of locations.
All the time you're out with your dog doing this fun training together, the dog is learning about the world in the vital work of socialization. Refining your common language while you're out and about just keeps socialization trips all the more interesting.
Dogs can learn to distinguish between words that sound similar, such as these common cue words for handling a dog: "sit," "stand," "stay," "no" and "go." Two dogs with similar names easily learn to distinguish between their names. It just takes practice and reward. Dogs learn best with practice that is enjoyable to them. Under stress they learn less efficiently. If the stress is too great they will go into a fight-or-flight panic state and not be able to learn at all.
It's difficult for humans to understand that saying a word more loudly or in an angry voice will not help the dog to learn. Most dogs have acute hearing, and like humans they will actually listen to you more intently when you speak more softly. An angry tone puts stress on the dog that interferes with learning. For many sensitive dogs, an angry tone in your voice is in itself a punishment.
Motivation is essential in teaching. Why should I pay attention to something that doesn't interest me? Dogs are the same way. Reward creates motivation and interest.
The best reward is what this dog wants at this moment, and something you can deliver without interrupting the lesson. Food treats make good rewards because most dogs love to eat and you can give tiny treats during training without the dog leaving position to be rewarded. As your training and relationship with your dog progress, you can add other rewards that have become special to the dog.
So, you present the dog with a consistent picture of body language associated with the word delivered in a consistent voice, motivation for the dog to genuinely want to figure it out, and a pleasant atmosphere that doesn't interfere with learning. Whatever training techniques you use, these are the elements that bring words to life for your dog.
The Sound of Your Voice
Trainers used to believe a command had to be delivered in a loud, authoritative or even harsh tone for a dog to respect it. Now we know a dog will respond reliably to whatever volume, pitch and tone of voice you have consistently reinforced in your work with the dog. Additionally, we know that a harsh tone of voice can actually interfere with learning.
Praise is another aspect of talking to your dog. Praise will have only the meaning to your dog that you have created in your time together. Praising the dog before doing something else the dog likes-giving a treat, petting, playing a game, etc.-teaches the dog to enjoy your praise. If you want to build praise as a tool to use in working with your dog, be sure to combine it with the other rewards in order to create this happy connection.
Verbal encouragement enables you to energize your dog. You use your voice to keep the dog enthusiastically working. Build this ability by cheering your dog on during playtimes. The dog will learn to associate this voice of yours with continuing to do something fun. Avoid using cue words (such as "sit," "come," etc.) in verbal encouragement, because that would tell the dog to stop and do something different for you.
If you normally say your dog's name before a cue word to alert the dog that a cue is coming, don't use the name at the beginning of verbal encouragement. If your dog has a nickname, use the nickname instead. Verbal encouragement is a wonderful tool when you can't get close enough to touch the dog. It holds the dog in the positive, playful frame of mind in which most of us think and work best.
A drawn-out, smooth voice will help your dog understand steady tasks, like "stay" or "down" or "easy." An intimidating voice for these situations can have the exact opposite of the effect you need, making the dog break position or panic. Associate your steady voice with times you and your dog are chilling out together. Slow strokes with your hand that relax the dog will help give meaning to this way of using your voice. Hearing this voice from you at other times will remind the dog of the quiet times and the slow, calming strokes of your hand.
Just as you check out your body language to see what your dog is seeing, listen carefully to your voice to hear what your dog is hearing. If this doesn't come naturally to you, try carrying a small tape recorder during sessions with your dog to listen to yourself later.
Learn by working with your dog what voice works best for each response. Does this dog listen more to a high pitch or a low pitch in your voice? Does an excited voice get the dog to respond more quickly-or does it cause the dog to get silly and out of control? As you and your dog continue to work together, these factors will keep changing, so continue your observations. The fun of working with a dog comes in fine-tuning the communication and the teamwork.
All of your efforts to communicate clearly with your dog will be repaid many times over. When your dog realizes you really want to communicate, the dog will work hard to communicate with you.
Keep this in mind, and be sure you never penalize your dog for trying. If the dog doesn't give the response you want, remember that trying is a valuable response in itself.
The most negative reaction you ever want to give to a dog who is really trying to work with you is simply to not reward an incorrect response. You certainly don't want to discourage honest effort by reacting harshly. When the dog will keep trying, you can eventually reach just about any goal. Persistent effort is incredibly valuable and well worth nurturing.
If the dog is not making an effort, don't blame the dog. It's the human's responsibility to motivate the dog! Whatever interesting thing is going on in the area, you want to be even more interesting! Good training classes can help you achieve this ability.
Develop your language, through both words and body language, to eliminate any need for a tight leash between you and your dog. This improves communication and eliminates physical damage to both of you from pulling on the leash. A loose leash helps your dog pay attention to your language. A tight leash is actually caused by the human, not by the dog!
Most dogs have keen hearing, but this can change due to disease or old age. The body language signals your dog has learned along with words will keep communication between the two of you going strong. You and your dog can talk to each other every day of your lives together.
Look for Part II “What you dog is saying to you” in our December Tip.