By Tom Smith, Wildrose Mississippi
Mike Stewart says one of the secrets of dog training is: “Dogs don’t talk but they are always communicating.” Do you know how to decipher what your dog is telling you? Does your dog understand what you are asking of them? We are going to delve into human-canine communications to help understand what you are doing, or are perhaps not doing, when interacting with your furry companion.
Canine communication can be broken down into 3 main areas, the 3 T’s- Timing, Tempo and Tone (page 41, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way). Our dogs read us like an open book. They know when we are happy, sad, mad, upset and the list goes on, but do they truly understand what you are asking from them?
For the last decade or more of training clients, I have found that timing is one of the hardest tasks for handlers to grasp. Our job as handlers is to make a correction or praise immediately when the dog does or does not do what we are asking. For example, when I have a dog on the fence, and we are starting left and right casting, it is imperative to praise the dog when he takes the correct cast. I do not wait until he has gone 15 yards for the praise. It is immediate as soon as he turns in the proper direction and makes the first step. This lets Fido know he is doing exactly what I want. On the other hand, if he turns the wrong way, I am immediately hitting the stop whistle and verbally saying “no.” Dogs live in the moment, if the praise or correction is not immediate they do not understand exactly what is going on. If you leave your puppy in a room and come back and the pup has peed on the floor, you can’t correct him because you didn’t catch him in the act. If you scold him at this point, he has no idea what he did. He has moved on to the next thing he wants to explore. This takes us further down the rabbit hole with how we respond to a specific behavior.
Not only must your timing be spot on, but your response must be correct. We have 3 responses to a pup’s behavior: praise, correction, and neutral. Praise and correction we all understand, but what is the neutral? If your pup lines out for a retrieve, makes the pick, and on the way back decides to do a bit of an independent frolic and eventually comes back to deliver, what is your response? He brought it back to hand, correct? Should you praise? But he also ran around like a goofball. Should you make a correction? Neither. A neutral response here is perfect. As the handler I am not rewarding nor correcting the dog for any of the behaviors he just exhibited, I will take the bumper and reset the drill. If Fido does the same run-about again, we will move to a different area so as not to develop an undesirable habit. Dogs are place oriented so we will move across the property and not run the same drill in that location for a few weeks.
Tempo is the pace (fast or slow) at which you conduct training. This starts when you take the dog out for training. If Roscoe is lethargic and not paying attention, I will walk at a brisk pace for the ramp-up and do a lot of squares to keep his attention. I will throw in some clapping and make the outing really fun and exciting for the pup. Conversely, if I get a dog out and they are fired up I will do what I call a zombie walk. I began walking quickly to burn energy then reduce my pace to a very slow and methodical tempo to get that energy level down to a manageable level. This theory also applies while you are running the drills. If Mattis is up on his claws in a sprinter’s stance, I will move very slowly during the lining process and hold him longer before release to control him. On the other hand, if Ralph is uninterested, I will move much faster and fire him quickly to keep his focus. Tempo is directly related to reading your dog and knowing their tendencies. As you progress as a handler, you will know what tempo to train at immediately when you get the dog out of the days lession which will provide insight on how to conduct your training.
Wow, can dogs read your tone of voice? The pitch of our voice makes a huge difference when communicating with our pup and it dramatically affects how they respond. We are all guilty of “baby talk” with our pups. I think it is just human nature when we see those fat little balls of energy. With my young dogs, I’m going to be much more upbeat in a high pitched tone when I praise them. And use a lower tone or growl when I correct. Dogs, especially pups, are very reactive to your tone when you are talking to them.
Tone really lets the dog know when they are doing something right versus wrong. Watch your pup’s body language when you give them praise with a fast high-pitched tone. Those tails are wagging and you can see the joy in their face. In stark contrast, the body language changes dramatically when you lower your tone and use that growl or “pirate voice.” At this point, except for key words, it doesn’t matter what you are saying it is how you are saying it. Being cognizant of how you are communicating with your dog can make a huge difference in not only your relationship but your progress as you move through the training cycle.
In addition to the 3 T’s, I believe body language plays a big role in human-canine communication. When we praise Fido, our body language is very warm and welcoming versus making a correction when we are much stiffer and giving off the “don’t mess with me” vibe. When starting your pup on his first retrieves, we are crouched down and giving lots of praise with a higher tempo and tone to make sure our pup knows we are happy with their behavior. They are less likely to come right back to you if you are standing upright. Make it a big party incorporating the 3 T’s with a welcoming body language so the pup knows he is doing everything right.
As you progress through life with your dog, you will find that your communication abilities with them will become very symbiotic. It will seem as if you both know what the other is thinking. Starting early and understanding how human-canine communication works will enhance your experience with your four-legged best friend while taking training to new heights. When you travel the country hunting, fishing, and exploring, the bond you will create with your dog will be something you remember for a lifetime.
Now let’s get out and train!