Dogs are amazing creatures. They adapt to countless situations. They are phenomenal at associations: including learning the meaning or implication of many sounds, such as human language. A dog’s “vocabulary” can reach upward of 150 distinct words! However, regardless of how smart, how skilled, and how adaptable they are, dogs will never be verbal animals. Their first language, so to speak, is not words, but body language. Because of this, it’s only natural that your dog will interpret your words though a “filter” – of body language, facial expression, tone of voice, even your attention. And if one or more of these “disagree” with the words you are using, most dogs will “obey” your body language!
In my experience, most snags in the dog training process result from miscommunication, not willfulness, stubbornness, or dominance. While this article is geared toward training the family dog, the fact is that whether your dog is strictly a family pet, a competitor in canine sports, or a full-time working dog, getting the most out of your training time means learning to communicate effectively with your dog.
Communication Begins with Attention
Possibly the most fundamental form of communication is your attention. This is true whether you are teaching some new skill, practicing an old one, or refining an advanced behavior. When you give your attention to something your dog does – through touch, voice, eye contact, smiling, or laughter – you draw attention to the behavior. This tells your dog that you find the behavior worthy of interest. Dogs, being sociable creatures, find most interaction and attention reinforcing. They value it, and will work to get it – and this is not even considering whether or not the dog finds the behavior reinforcing in and of itself. So when training, keep in mind that you don’t have to actively reward a behavior to reinforce it.
Bring yourself into a training session committed to focusing on your dog to the same extent that you are asking him to focus on you. Avoid training when you are distracted or pre-occupied. This is basic respect and consideration, no more than you would give any good friend! To be attentive to your dog, you don’t need to stare at him, but you should be aware of him. An effective trainer is aware, present, and “in the moment” while training, ready and able to note and reward any and all good responses, as they happen. And if your dog gives a response you weren’t hoping for? Instead of drawing attention to it, verbally or otherwise, ignore it and move on! Drawing attention to poor responses often simply cements them in the dog’s brain, and makes it more likely that he will offer it again. Focus your energy and attention on behaviors you want to see again.
As you practice this approach to working with your dog, you will soon find that your dog will be working to gain your attention by doing those things you like. As your dog’s behavior steadily improves, voluntary cooperation increases, your relationship with your dog gets stronger, and you both have more fun training. Kind of hard to find a down-side to that, don’t you think?
The Body Language of Effective Dog Training
Training your dog is the ultimate expression of leadership: you are taking the initiative to teach, guide, and direct your dog. Your body language, therefore, should reflect your role as teacher and leader, communicating a calm self-confidence and composure. Let’s look at the components of non-verbal communication as they affect your dog:
Invite learning with your facial expression and demeanor. Your body language begins at the top, with your face. Training should be a positive, pleasant experience for you and your dog. Before you begin, and periodically throughout, consciously relax your facial muscles. Smile gently. Soften your eyes. Take a deep, relaxing breath, and keep breathing! When you are relaxed and happy, you present a safe haven for your dog’s attention. (And there is nothing to be tense about, right? This is dog training, not world peace!) A soft eye will invite your dog to seek out your face, whereas a hard stare may intimidate your dog into breaking off eye contact, reducing your ability to communicate clearly.
If you find yourself becoming flustered, frustrated, tense, or anxious, your may find that your dog reflects your emotions:
- He may seek calmness elsewhere, by avoiding looking at you, or even trying to move away from you. Some dogs become exaggeratedly slow and sedate, or even show submissive behaviors, as they try to calm you.
- He may “act out” in an attempt to distract you or diffuse the situation. This type of dog may become generally agitated, or even resort to silly antics to distract you from yourself!
- If you become nervous, many dogs will reflect that nervousness, either distracting themselves from an uncomfortable situation, or looking around to find the source of your tension.
If any of these happen while training your dog, before you direct your frustration at him, look to yourself first. Take a deep, steady breath, relax your face and your body, smile, and try again!
Communicate confidence. When training your dog, especially a dog new to you or new to training, your movements and body language should give off an air of calm, relaxed confidence. As much as is realistic, remain upright without being rigid. (Remember your facial expression? Your body language should also “invite learning”.) As a rule, an upright but relaxed posture helps communicate confident authority – an excellent teaching posture. If your body needs to bend, keeping your shoulders relatively back will help maintain a bearing of self-assurance. While this is more important with a dog beginning its training, and with naturally effusive or assertive personalities, any dog can become confused by too much bowing, bending, ducking, and bobbing. He may naturally assume that you are playing, acting submissive, anything but training! Any hand signals associated with commands should be clean, simple and definitive. They should be free from excessive, meaningless motion, and should never be used to threaten or pester the dog.
Communicate composure. Be still. Whether you are working on a stationary exercise (such as a sit-stay), or a moving exercise (such as heeling, or a recall), focus on keeping your body language “quiet”. Don’t bury your cue in a gush of confusing, meaningless gestures or activity. Allow your dog to focus on your words and any intended hand or body signals; don’t put him in a position to have to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Once your dog is more advanced in his training, you may wish to teach him to respond to verbal cues despite unrelated body language. But for now – first things first. Walk before you run!
More than Just Words
Communicating clearly and effectively to your dog includes becoming aware of how your tone of voice, and delivery of cues, affect how your dog learns and responds. When training your dog, keep in mind that your voice conveys more than just the command itself.
First, be consistent. Dog owners new to training often vary their cue delivery, switching back and forth between, for example, a nice, straightforward “sit”, a loud and forceful “SIT!”, and a sing-songy, not particularly confident-sounding “si-yit?” To a dog, each of these sounds is very different, not like the same cue at all! Again, dogs are not verbal animals. Delivering a command that varies in tone, pitch, and length can and will confuse your training partner. Do yourself and your dog a favor: keep the sound of your cues consistent. In other words, pick a sound and stick with it!
Promote cooperation. When you give your dog a verbal cue, your voice, like your body language, should be relaxed and even. Speak in a normal tone. As you give your cue, picture your dog performing the exercise nicely — this confidence will come through in your voice. Avoid tones that are whiny, questioning, or pleading. Trying to train your dog in these “lost puppy” tones will be an exercise in frustration. They will not gain you acknowledgment, much less respect! Remember, you are a teacher, a coach, a mentor – not a servant. At the other extreme, you don’t need to assume a loud, tough-sounding “command voice”. This is for two reasons. First, aggressive, intimidating tones tend to introduce resistance in more confident dogs, and unthinking subservience in less confident ones. Neither is conducive to learning, cooperation, or teamwork. Second, your dog is perfectly capable of listening and responding when you speak in a normal, pleasant, everyday tone of voice. Assuming you plan to utilize what you’ve taught your dog in your everyday life, you will be instructing your dogs here and there all day long. So, why in the world teach your dog that you have to play “drill sergeant” in order to have him do as you ask? It introduces unnecessary stress into training, is not particularly productive, and certainly doesn’t reflect a relationship of willing partnership. The fact is, your dog is much more likely to respond calmly, willingly, and thoughtfully if your voice and demeanor are relaxed and conversational. The bottom line: to promote cooperation, teach your dog his cues in a voice that is reasonable, comfortable, and normal for you.
Sincere appreciation is key. All too often, we get so caught up and focused on teaching our dogs that, just when we need to relax and enjoy the moment of success, we end up giving praise that is hollow, rehearsed, and frankly, not very praise-like at all. Keep in mind that the words are not important; it’s your demeanor that counts. Praise doesn’t need to have a certain tonal quality or pitch nearly as much as it needs to convey that you are sincerely pleased and happy at that moment. In other words, your dog should feel truly appreciated for a job well done – regardless of whether the success was a long sought-after quantum leap, or one of the many baby steps to success along the way.
Feel free to “test run” different happy sounds on your dog, to see what kind of reaction you get. But again, the most important thing is that your dog knows, from your voice and your demeanor, that you are pleased. Don’t think you can fool your dog – he lives with you and is fully aware of how you sound and look when you are happy, sad, mad, and indifferent. Mentally appreciate your dog as you give your praise, and it will come through in your voice.
If you do need to use your voice to indicate that you don’t want a particular behavior – whether you say no, or ah-ahh, wrong, etc – the sound should be dismissive, not angry or frightening. The point is to educate, not intimidate. Remember, as you work with one another, both you and your dog will make mistakes. The point is not to make him feel badly for his mistake, but to learn how to best help him be right. A dog trained this way will understand your message, while continuing to want to work with you.