Alan Newton, owner of WR Shadow
When attending any Wildrose workshop, undoubtably you’ve heard the quote from Mike Stewart, “Dogs don’t talk.”
So why as handlers, do we often converse with our Wildrose companions as though they are fluent in our native language? Is it in the hope the dog “understands,” eventually exhibiting the behavior we desire, or simply verbal frustration indicative of our need to improve as a handler?
I am placing my money on the latter, as most likely, we need to improve our canine communication skills. The terminology acquired during our training to become an effective handler, beginning with the dog’s name, followed by sit, down, stay, heel, here (or come), no, place, out, load up, kennel, hide, watch, dead bird, back, get on, hold, dead, high loss, and most importantly, good (don’t forget the praise aspect of positive reinforcement dog training), along with the sometimes necessary phrase shared on occasion with Shadow, “What are you doing,” sum up all the needed verbal commands required to communicate with our companions. Remember, present a verbal command once, and set the expectation for compliance, as this is the sign of an accomplished handler.
The current pandemic abruptly shifted all my classes to an online format, and subsequently led to consideration of how best to communicate with my students. During a recent training session, thoughts around effective communication with my canine companions surfaced, similar to the consideration of how to best communicate with my students.
In the midst of that training session, I began to construct a mental list of the multiple ways and times we communicate with our dog throughout a single day. Every canine interaction is a communication opportunity. Should you be so fortunate to have your dog as a work companion, or a retiree with your dog as a constant companion, you are likely communicating with your dog the entirety of your waking hours. Handlers who fail to recognize every daily communication opportunity, coupled with the employment of inadequate communication skills, quickly build uncertainty and mistrust in the dog as he or she observes poor communication, the absence of handler confidence, and the lack of critical leadership skills. Effective and properly timed communication instills trust and confidence in one’s dog.
What does effective canine communication look like? The four Cs of effective communication – calm, confident, controlled, and consistent – paint the picture we should endeavor to portray as handlers (Stewart, 2012, pg. 44). My purpose here is not to enter into a lengthy discussion of each communication skill, but rather to invite you into a few moments of self-reflection.
- Given the opportunity, would an experienced handler judge you as a calm leader throughout the entirety of a training session?
- Are you confident in your handling ability during a training session, or are their areas where you need to improve, and possibly seek guidance from a more experienced handler or trainer?
- Do you remain in control throughout a training session demonstrating key leadership skills, or do you often ride an “emotional roller coaster,” displaying times of pleasure during training, and in the next moment, exhibiting frustration? Does your tone and body language reveal the highs and lows of training to others, and most importantly to your dog?
- Are you consistent in regards to verbal commands, audible tones, body language, and setting the expectation for compliance? Do you consistently offer properly timed verbal marks for a task well done, while ignoring less than desired canine performance, seizing that opportunity to construct a “win” for your dog?
Answering “yes” to all the above is good, as doing so reflects confidence in your handling ability, but consider how you might become even more proficient in each of the four Cs as a handler, or possibly which one is in need of a minor tune-up. Recognizing an area in need of improvement is not indicative of failure, it’s simply a canine communication method Wildrose handlers acknowledge they could improve upon. Advance your canine communication through workshop attendance, and seek out guidance by conversing with fellow handlers, contacting trainers, or simply make a phone call to one of the Wildrose locations to initiate resolution to a communication issue.
Let’s conclude with a review of the three ways we communicate with our dog, as noted by Mike in the latest edition of the Wildrose Journal, in ascending order of importance.
- Verbal communication, is the least effective method of canine communication. Endless talk is useless, frustrating, and unproductive, and should be kept to the simple verbal commands identified above, the ones we acquired during handler training.
- Tone, the second communicator, comes in three forms. Excited tones ramp up a dog and in my experience are quite helpful during the training of a puppy, particularly with early retrieves. Calm tones quiet a dog who is overly excited or rambunctious. A sharp tone presented with a deep-pitch, the best example being “no,” quickly garners the dog’s attention and invites the opportunity to redirect the dog’s focus.
- Body language is indeed the most critical handler communication tool, the leadership skill consistently being observed by the dog, and I would offer the communication method receiving the least attention in need of improvement by handlers.Does your body language reflect authority while projecting friendliness, welcoming your dog to be in the midst of your presence? We’ve all been instructed on the importance of body language during that critical job interview. It is no different with our dogs during training. Perhaps thoughts around our projected body language should supersede the tone and context of the next verbal command we are mentally planning.
One final thought on communication with your Wildrose dog resulting from my backgrounding experience with Wildrose pups, and its centers on eye contact. This is indeed a critical step in backgrounding a puppy. Acquiring the attentiveness of a young dog by calling its name or a simple light tap on the head prior to giving a command results in respect for the handler as a leader. Seek to capture the attention of a young dog, reward it with a mark of “good,” then offer the command. Done correctly, eye contact will become a consistent, predictable behavior in your Wildrose dog, and a behavior you want in your dog!
Arrival back at the kennel following a training session to feed and groom your dog is a fantastic opportunity to consider the events of the just completed session, plan for the next one, and grade yourself on how well you communicated with your dog today. In summary:
- Dog training begins the day you pick up your puppy
- Your dog is always in training
- Your dog is always watching you, regardless of where the handler’s mind, thoughts, or attention may be at the moment
- You have responsibility for creating the dog you envisioned when you first decided to pursue a Wildrose companion, so
put into daily practice the four Cs during your canine interaction, seek to improve upon any weakness, limit your verbal commands to those that are indeed effective and understood by the dog offering them at the proper time and in the appropriate tone, and most importantly, exhibit body language that is positive, welcoming, and displays leadership as perceived by others, and especially your dog.
Reference:Stewart, M. (2012). Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, Raising a Gentleman’s Gundog for Home and Field. New York: Universe Publishing.