It's Not What you Say, It's What you Do
Reprinted from April 4, 2013
Back to the topic about dog training. Since my last entry, I have run across a couple of articles/e-books that are well written. Here is an e-book that gets into details about dog training concepts (rogerabrantes.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/the-20-principles-all-animal-trainers-must-know/). It may be more than you wanted to read, but it’s free and you might pick up a few new ideas. Another great read to inspire your training is on a recent Susan Garrett post called How Good is your Glue (susangarrettdogagility.com/2012/03/how-good-is-your-glue/)? She has written a number of blog entries on her DASH system of training, so keep that one bookmarked, or sign up for her newsletter.
In my last entry, I talked about words (verbal cues) to use in dog training. I mentioned that a word in and of itself doesn’t carry much meaning to the dog (remember the old cartoon with the dog hearing “blah blah blah blah”?). The way you say it certainly helps, as long as your sing-songy way of speaking a particular word is always the same. But here is the reality - it’s much more about what your body language says than just the word that comes out of your mouth. Dogs have an uncanny ability to read our faces, our posture, the slightest movement of a body part - even things we don’t realize we are doing have meaning to the dog. As long as you are aware of each detail, you can use this to your advantage.
Agility is a dog sport in which body language and choreography play a huge role in your success as a handler. Get the choreography and the timing right, and there is a good chance you can get a qualifying run. (Of course, the judge’s job is to make the choreography a challenge to the average handler.) In agility, we talk about natural cues vs. trained cues. Natural cues are, for example, moving forward with your shoulders facing forward. This tells a dog to go straight in the direction you are heading. If the handler slows down before a jump, it means that the dog needs to get ready for a turn. If the handler runs past a jump, then starts to turn to face the dog, the dog knows to collect and get ready for a tight turn coming up. If the handler turns to face the dog before a jump, the dog needs to slow way down and look for another cue - if the handler throws a hand backwards and moves in a backwards direction, it means take the jump and do a 180 degree wrap turn. Handlers also use an outside raised hand to signal that we are about to take a sharp turn (like the turn signal on a car) - this is used before we turn our shoulder to the dog for a front cross. An inside hand gesture at a jump means, take that one next. These are body signals that dogs understand through thousands of years of hunting with humans. Whether we are out in the hunt field or on an agility course, these signals come pre-programmed into your canine partner. Natural cues can include such things as direction of motion (‘let’s go this way’), turn of the shoulders (‘lets turn together now’), turn of the head (‘come to this side of my body’), direct eye contact (‘slow down, you might need to turn around’), indirect eye contact (‘I’m paying attention to you’), or facing the dog (‘slow down/stop’), hand motions/arm signals (‘pay attention because we have a turn coming up’, or ‘go over there’, or ‘this is the imaginary wall, don’t go past my arm’), and the placement of your cues relative to the object in question - all of these are already programmed into the dog. Of course, you will need to introduce the obstacle (in this case, the jump), but the natural cues are pretty much instinctive. One Mind Dog teaches you to point your chest towards where you want your dog to go ("chest laser") as a method to get a dog around an agility course.
Trained cues take the choreography to the next step. Sending a dog over a jump while you move in a lateral direction away from that jump (such as getting into position for the next jump on course) takes a little more practice. A younger dog needs more “support” in handling cues, while a more seasoned dog understands that it sometimes needs to move in a different direction from the handler. We need to train that an outstretched hand pointing at a jump way over there is where the dog needs to go next (a forward or directed send). Sending a dog over a jump with the handler standing still takes some serious training - probably more than you would guess. Obstacle discrimination is even tougher. When you send a dog out to a dog walk that has a tunnel wrapped under it, how does the dog know to take the dog walk or the tunnel? Most dogs will pick their favorite obstacle, unless the handler has clearly trained the cues (“Tunnel” or “Walk It”) - or else they have taught the dog to take the one further away or the one closer in depending on what body signals the handler is giving the dog.
When we can combine natural and trained cues without messing up either one, then we have a much stronger line of communication between dog and handler. If you watch the world’s top agility handlers you will see their pinpoint accuracy in the choreography that they use. Most of us can’t run like these folks - that takes some serious training.
With dogs being SO tuned into every tiny movement that we make, it’s no wonder that they prefer to rely on our body language rather than our spoken language. The word you use has some, but little meaning. So, to be a good dog trainer, you had better be in control of what your body is doing. When you tell your dog to sit, do you do a little fake treat hand raising motion (because somebody taught you to lure the dog into a sit)? When you tell the dog to down, do you lower your chin? Perhaps you sometimes do that by mistake when you ask your dog to come running to you. Film yourself once in a while and see what little signals you are using. You might just use these to your advantage - or you might find that you are giving conflicting signals without even knowing it. You will see that even when you say a word that to you has one meaning, your body says something else. Body language rules over spoken language to a dog - be fair to the dog and make sure you are clear in your cues.
Speaking of intuitive communication through body language, do you want a strange dog to like you? Don’t look him in the eye for more than a second. Remember what I said above about using eye contact with a dog. Looking a dog in the eye means ‘slow down/stop’ and from a dog’s point of view, it’s a very rude thing to do to a stranger, by the way. So, look at him for a second, then turn your head and your body at an angle. That says to him that you know he’s there and it’s OK to approach you from the side and sniff. He will like it even better if you move a bit in a direction at an angle to him. That says, hey, lets go for a walk together. Here is another example. If you want a reluctant dog to come running towards you, don’t face him and look him in the eye - that’s an example of a natural cue that doesn’t match the trained cue (“come”). Instead, run away from him, get him to run with you in the direction you want to go, then encourage him to come towards your hand, because you might just have some treats or a toy to share. These are examples of the same signals we use in agility, or in hunting for birds out in the field. This is dog and man communicating in a natural language. It’s all about the dance of communication and how you can work together. Once you figure it out, it will open a whole new world to you.