If I had to define dog training in the fewest possible words I would say dog training is the practice of human-canine communication and compliance skills. Regardless of what kind of dog training you are doing interspecies communication is the key. The thing is interspecies communication can be tricky because each species has its own common behavior and its own way of seeing the world. There are things that make it difficult for dogs to understand us, and things that make it difficult for us to understand them.
In order to communicate with dogs we have to understand them as dogs. We have to look at the species as the amazing animals that they are. One human trait that will make this difficult for us is our tendency to anthropomorphize, or to give human form or attributes to an animal, plant, material object, etc.
We will combat our natural tendency to anthropomorphize dogs by looking in a matter-of-fact way at some things that we know about dogs. By looking at what we know as facts about dogs it will enable us to use those facts to aid in our interspecies communication skills.
This blog is the first in a series that will plainly state some things that I (we) know about dogs and how I apply that knowledge to my dog training practices. I used to think that this first thing that we know about dogs was obvious, but I have been dismissed from an initial consultation because I have stated it. I get at least one prospective client a season that will spend minutes telling me that it is not true and that their dog is good at the particular skill. Here it is:
Dogs do not comprehend English or any other human verbal language. If you were planning to learn Swahili to communicate better with your dog, don’t bother. There are dogs that know thousands of words. Even action commands like “get the” ball, or “get the” yellow fish. There is a border collie named Chaser in the U.K. that knows 6,000 object names. Even Chaser cannot really comprehend English. He has learned these words through association.
You can tell Chaser “get my slippers” and he will complete that task, but you cannot tell Chaser “get my slippers only on Mondays and Wednesdays”; he will not understand that. You can’t tell Chaser that Julie does not like to be jumped on but Jess does and expect Chaser to just jump on Jess. However, just because dogs are not good at human language comprehension does not mean that dogs cannot learn to communicate quickly with human beings.
To communicate with dogs we have to use the skills that they are good at. Dogs are very good at understanding human and dog body language and energies. Dogs are one of two species that look at the left side of a human’s face first. This is because the left side of a person’s face is more expressive than the right side of that person’s face. Dogs are one of very few animals that will follow the point of a human’s finger. Dogs use their noses to point and direct the attention of other dogs and humans as well. Here is an example to illustrate the point. My dog D-Dee will bark when I make eye contact, then move my eyes quickly to the right and return to eye contact.
Dogs also understand distance and space. A dog can be trained to move closer or further away when a person leans or shifts their weight. We can use weight shifts and the angle of our feet at great distances to influence a dog’s behavior. If we understand how dogs communicate and use this understanding then we can communicate more clearly and easily with dogs. First we have to be very aware of what we are doing with our bodies, and then we have to notice the effects of what we are doing on the dog. With consistency these things become clear to a dog. Clarity is the first part of communication.
Keep practicing, keep training and Enjoy Your Dog!!!