6.) Communicating with our dog

With a basic understanding of our dog’s postures and signals, it is time to get into how we can actually communicate with our dog. Dogs use a variety of signals to communicate with each other and this also applies to their interaction with humans. When we speak to our dog, he is not actually listening to our words, but he is paying close to the sound, volume and pitch of our voice.

In addition, he is paying close attention to any gestures or movements that can be as obvious as raising an arm to something as inconspicuous as raising an eyebrow. Dogs can even detect a change in our scent, especially when we get overly stressed or fearful. Over all, this is good news for us dog trainers because it means we can leverage a combination of all of these signals as stimuli in our training.

The downside is that it really forces us to pay close attention to what we do. For example, if your dog has learned a verbal cue (i.e. “stay”) that always came in combination with an open palm of your hand pointed towards your dog, it is very likely that your dog will not understand the verbal cue if it comes without the visual gesture.

Many trainers (including myself) use physical gestures (or body-language) as an essential component when they teach their dogs new behaviors. If you train your dog based on the methods described on this website, your dog will pay close attention to what you do. He will try to figure out what you want. I always start with body-language to teach a new behavior and then introduce the verbal cue once my dog understands what is expected from him. There is a simple reason for this: my dog has no idea what my verbal cue means until he understands how to perform the entire new behavior correctly and reliably. If he does not know what “Sit” is, I can throw the verbal “Sit” cue at him for a hundred times – and he still would not sit. If we introduce the verbal cue to early, there is another risk and that is that our dog might connect that cue with something else (looking at us, moving forward, laying down and so on). Since positive reinforced training methods encourage our dog to “think”, you never know what he “concludes” at any given moment. It gets really messy once that happens and we need to explain to him that he is wrong…

Once I know with some certainty that my dog has learned the new behavior, I introduce the verbal cue and start to reduce my physical gestures continuously until they are no longer needed. Sometimes however, we don’t quite accomplish this because we don’t realize that we are still doing “something” subconsciously every time we give our dog a verbal cue. This happens most often with dog handlers who don’t have other handlers or trainers watch them when they practice with their dog. I have met a number of competitive dog handlers who learned this the hard way in obedience trials when their dogs suddenly “forgot” what to do because their handlers’ verbal cue (or “command”) came without a subconsciously used physical gesture. I am actually one of them… and that’s why I really like to work with a video camera. Don’t they say that self-criticism is the best criticism?

Since your dog is paying close attention to all of your actions and bodily signals when you train with him, we need to pay very close attention to two equally important training components: clarity and consistency.

Clarity is King.

We use the down cue to teach our dog to lie down. But then, we tell him to get down when we want him off the couch, or we say down if we don’t want him to jump up on us. Confusing? There are plenty of examples like this where we mix what is supposed to be a verbal cue for our dog with our everyday language. Some dog trainers suggest developing different words for use as verbal cues, but I think this is just to confusing for everyone. There is one scenario however where using two sets of commands makes sense and that is if you ever want to practice a competitive sport with your dog (i.e. Obedience or Schutzhund). For example, I am using two different verbal cues with Andy that both mean “down”. The first one is “Platz”, a German command for “down” in the Schutzhund sport, and the second one is “nieder” which is another German word for down. I use “Platz” when I want Andy to drop down instantly into an alert and watchful position as required by the Schutzhund trial rules while I use “Nieder” when I want him to lie down wherever and however he wants to get some rest. I have to admit, the German language certainly offers an advantage for this because I am sure we have about five different words for everything. If you are interested in a translation of different verbal cues into English, visit this website for an overview.

Consistency is King, too!

Once your dog has learned a verbal cue(and you are absolutely sure about that), it has to be treated like an “order” and that means that there is no “maybe”. If you don’t enforce verbal cues that you give to your dog, they turn into nothing other than friendly suggestions which your dog will only obey whenever he feels like it. Sometimes this is difficult, especially with younger dogs or when your dog is distracted or playing with other dogs. In positive dog training, the consistency component follows two golden rules: Rule number one is that obeying a verbal cue needs to be fun for your dog. Rule number two is that obeying your verbal cue needs to be rewarding for your dog. With that said, don’t give verbal cues to your dog if there is a good chance your dog will ignore them. While this may sound completely counter-intuitive, it is a very important ingredient of getting your dog to a reliable obedience. The first thing we want our dog to learn is that following your verbal cues is always rewarding. Once your dog has learned this (and I am speaking many months of practice and not only a few days) you can start to use these verbal cues even when your dog is distracted doing other fun stuff. At that time however, the fun-factor of your obedience exercise is already deeply imprinted and your dog is a lot less likely to ignore you or to loose interest.

(Note: This post belongs to a series of multiple articles about the fundamentals of positive dog training.
Click here to go to the overview page that allows you to easily navigate to each article in this series.)

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