Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Imagine you’re walking along on the street when all of a sudden someone yells “No!” What is your reaction? If you’re like most people, you’ll startle. You’ll stop in your tracks and probably start to look around to see what’s going on. Were you stepping off the curb? Did they want you to stop? Were you going the wrong way? What in the world could be happening?

What will you do next? Most likely you’ll stop where you are and try to figure out what could be happening. You’ll look around, but will that tell you what to do? Or what not to do? No, not in the least.

This is the situation your dog finds herself in every time you say “No!” Think of how often this occurs in your house. She may try to jump up on someone and you say “no!” She may try to take something that doesn’t belong to her. Maybe she’s darting out the front door. Maybe you asked her to “stay” and she’s walking away. 

Why not provide more useful information? Think of what behavior you might like in place those that make you say “no!” Instead of saying “no” when she jumps, why not ask her to “sit” instead? Or teach her to go lie down somewhere when visitors come? If she tries to pick up a sock that doesn’t belong to her, why not ask her to “leave it” instead? If she darts out the door, make sure she has a solid recall, teach her the “wait” cue instead. If she gets up to walk away from a “stay” go back and practice “stay” until she understands she’s not supposed to get up until you come back to release her.  Tell your dog exactly what you need from her, don’t leave her to do the guess work.

Often saying “no” may startle your dog, but it won’t tell her what you need instead. She’ll be left to her devices to decide. Imagine if you’re out in the garden and you see her grab a tomato off the vine, if you say “no!” she may leave it there, but now what? She may pick up a pepper instead, or a different tomato or she may simply pause and then keep running with it. Is it her fault? No! You haven’t told her what you want! Now imagine that same dog picking up a tomato. How would the situation be different if she knew the “leave it” cue and you asked her to do so and then handed her a ball instead and said “take it?” Would this be easier on both human and canine?

Think of how many times a day you say “no” to your dog. What could you substitute in place of “no” to communicate more clearly with your dog? Try to count how many times you use “no” in your house, make a list of when you do it and come up with things you could say instead. For every time you say “no” there is something else you could say or another activity you could redirect your dog to. Start implementing these things and do a new count. Both your frustration level and that of your dog’s will be much lower!

We can maybe afford to use “no” once or twice every few years for those rare emergencies when we simply can’t think of anything else, but there’s no other need really. You should work through training exercises so that the first things that pop into your mind (even in an emergency) are “leave it,” “sit,” “down,” “come,” etc. Both you and your dog should be used to this! If you are out and out about and your dog leans down to pick up a chicken bone and you say “no!” in horror, you haven’t practiced “leave it” enough! It should be just as reflexive to you when you say it as it should be reflexive to your dog to do it.

Think of it this way: how many times a day so you say “no” to another human when you want them to do something for you? If they reach for a cup of coffee to hand you but you wanted tea, would you say “no!?” Or something more like “could I have tea instead?” If they go right and you want them to go left, wouldn’t you say “go left” instead of saying “no!” Think about how much more useful information in the form of directions we give other human beings. Shouldn’t we do the same for our dogs?

I challenge all of you to rid your home of the word “no” in the next year! Once you start, you’ll begin noticing how many times people around say it to their dogs and how much non-information it actually carries.

For some really fantastic takes on the uses of “no” and what a poor form of communication this word really is, as well as other ways we’re sometimes ineffective in communicating with our dogs, take a look at Ian Dunbar demonstrating with a fellow human at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHNV_og7AG4&feature=player_embedded  or the same video can be seen on the Dog Star Daily website with many other fabulous videos at http://www.dogstardaily.com/dogstars/videos/training/newest?filter0=31. And of course, my favorite example is from Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash (pages  95 to 97) for her fabulous Planet Gorn analogy.


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We’re in the middle of our third snow storm in a week (and this one is huge)! It’s been a long time since we’ve had a winter like this and it would be ideal to go for lots of long walks with Special Dark (well in the 28+ inches we have today though!). Anyone who knows Special knows how much he loves treats, but playing in the snow might even top treats! Unfortunately, Special is two weeks post op from a TPLO surgery for a torn ACL and won’t be going for long walks in the snow anytime soon.

Last night as it was snowing, all he wanted to do was bounce around it. Play bow after play bow he couldn’t understand why we just stood there, not egging him on as we normally would. Why were there no snowballs flying through the air that usually transform him into a flyball or Frisbee dog!?  For 10- 12 weeks post op, Special Dark is to have to only controlled leash walks. During the first few weeks he’s to be kept quite still, only gradually lengthening his walks from a block’s worth of walking–and no stairs, running or jumping. Oh boy, that’s a long time! But it gives me an excuse to blog about one of my very favorite topics: what it means to be trained.

As my wonderful friend Layla (a super- trainer in Seattle, WA) so eloquently put it: “if your dog fits into your lifestyle as you like it, then the dog is trained.”  It breaks my heart when people think having a trained dog means that the dog does everything you say when you say it, for no reason other than just because: the dog has to be at the human’s side every second of a walk and sitting whenever human decides to stop moving, the dog cannot look at another dog (and must never ever turn his head towards another dog), etc. What is the sense in this? Training is not about creating robots! Training doesn’t mean that dog has to stop being a dog, what’s fair or logical about that? We bring their species to live with us and expect them to completely abandon everything that is natural and normal to them? No!

Training is simply showing dogs that because they live with us humans, there will be certain times when we need them to follow certain human rules and social norms. Training is showing your dog that people, places and things they thought were unsafe before can actually be safe; even wonderful! Training is about creating a strong, healthy bond based on understanding each other. This means they learn to understand what we want from them and vice versa. We learn to read what their bodies are saying the way they are already so perceptive about what ours say to them (even when we’re not so aware of what our bodies are saying to them!).

There is nothing like the feeling you get when you see the look in your dog’s eyes when they really understand what it means when you wave your hand in that one funny motion or when you say a particular word! There’s no way to know for sure of course, but I imagine the dog gets that same wonderful feeling when they finally understand that when we raise our hands in that one particular gesture we mean for them to put their rumps on the ground! I think this is part of the reason that training builds a dog’s confidence and heightens the trust they have in their person.  

Anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve seen the power of clear communication. I’ve seen many instances where a trainer will demonstrate to a class how to teach a particular cue. When the trainer works with the dog, after a few tries and is eagerly responding to the trainer. Inevitably (because we’re all human after all) there will be a few people who initially will get the mechanics wrong. Maybe they lure in the wrong direction, they don’t go low enough or they go too high.  After a few trails of trying to work with their human, the dog turns his head and looks at the trainer! This never ceases to amuse and fascinate me! How I wish I knew what the dog was thinking! If I had to guess (and we all know guessing can be dangerous– no one can know for sure what a dog is thinking), I’d guess the dog was looking for the person who could “translate” for him.

But now back to Special Dark and his TPLO surgery. This is the beauty of training: when it comes down to a situation like this, where with very little warning we were told that he would need surgery and this hike loving, constantly play bowing, bouncy chow chow would need to be immobile for such a long period of time, we knew we’d have to rely on some of things that we’ve trained him. It turns out, some of these would be cues we’ve taught him, some of them would be games we’ve played, some would be fairly new and yes, there would be even be something we overlooked!

In the time we had before the surgery, we began heavily relying on a cue we taught him for fun: “scoop.” Scoop means we’re about to hold our arms out and pick him up. We knew we might need it one day. With this injury he would need to be picked up and carried up and down stairs for a long time, it’s important that he feel comfortable with it. 

We already use “leave it” for a lot of things, so we knew this would come in handy for when he goes to lick the incision.

The handout from the surgeon said that due to the level of pain a dog might feel during physical therapy, they advise the use of a muzzle. Check. We’ve got Special D so happy to wear a muzzle that when he sees it, he wags his tail and even before I can finish unfolding it, he’s pushing his nose into it!

With no long walks in our future, we had to be ready to keep Special mentally busy with our usual indoor games and toys, as well as add a few new ones. “Find it” is exactly what it sounds like. We hide treats under clothes, in a pile of toys, etc. We added a new spin on it and hide them under paper cups and he has to sniff out which ones they’re under. He’s working on his tricks too: things like having treats placed on his paws and waiting until we tell him which order he can take them in. He’s also working on touching various items on cue (stay tuned for this one, there will eventually be a video).

We have a few new puzzle feeder toys for him too. Two Nina Ottoson toys that he can work while he’s stationary. Each of them are challenging to use, even teaching him how to use them wore him out and has been great enrichment for him. Here’s a picture I took of him playing with the “Dog Tornado.” (Sorry about the quality, I took it with my cell phone!).                                                           


Special also has a stellar “stay” so it’s time to play with that again: long stays, stays where I disappear from view, stays where I walk around him, etc.

So in all our preparations from making sure he’s comfortable with all the places he’ll need to be touched to making a list of all his usual tricks and games to searching the internet for new ideas of tricks and games to occupy him, did we get it all? Nope. We forgot to get him used to wearing an e collar (better known to the world as “the cone of shame” as seen in the movie Up)! The first day was okay because he was too tired to care, but once the grogginess went away, he was clearly unhappy with wearing it. So we started to work on getting him used to that too through desensitization and counter-conditioning, plus we went out and got an inflatable one which we did the same thing with. We now have options for that too!

This is what trained means to me: working together with your dog to get through whatever life throws at you through the use of things you two have done during training. When you have the ability to effectively communicate with your dog, the two of you can get through anything! You can build on things they already know and add new behaviors, etc. It’s the real life application of the wonderful things you’ve done together (from the basic cues to games and tricks) that strengthen your bond! This is communicating with your dog when it counts. There’s no need to ask your dog to heel on every walk, to ask him to sit every 5 minutes just because you can.  That’s not what training is about, training is about the end result of being able to communicate when you need too and it’s about the journey of getting there. It’s about all the fun BOTH of you can have learning cues and playing games and learning tricks. Even though it breaks my heart to think that I cannot explain to Special Dark why his leg is so hurt, it makes me so happy that I can communicate to him the things he can do to help him through this scary and painful time for him. This is the “magic” and beauty of training- there’s no secret energy, no secret tips- it’s just this ability to communicate effectively with your dog that gives both of you the ability to fit into each other’s lifestyle! Whether that lifestyle includes competing in dog sports, therapy work or whether you just want to walk down a crowded street with your dog, learning how to effectively and humanely train your dog will get you there!

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Almost a year after Alex (the world famous African Grey parrot) died, Patricia McConnell wrote an article for Bark magazine (March/April 2008 No. 47, pg. 46-49) about what dogs understand. Can dogs understand concepts such as smaller vs. bigger? Can our dogs understand that the words we say to them can represent objects and actions?

The article was amazing as usual, but it wasn’t any of these questions that stuck with me. It was the end of one particular paragraph where she describes Alex’s first trip to the vet. Alex had to stay at the vet alone and as Irene Pepperberg (renowned scientist and Alex’s human) was leaving him, he said to her quietly “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” Can anything be more heart wrenching?

Reading the story still gives me goose bumps. I always hate seeing Special Dark confused or afraid of anything. I always wonder in particular about what rescue dogs in particular think about certain situations when they’ve just gone to their new homes. The first time Special Dark went to the vet was the day after we adopted him (believe me, this was only because it was absolutely necessary!), and among other things he was feeling, I wondered if he thought this family was done with him too.

There are many times when I’m gushing over Special Dark, talking to him for long periods of time about how I adore him. I know that while I’m doing this he’s looking at me wondering what I want, scanning for words he already knows (sit, down, stay, walk, treat, etc). A prime example of this is when I’m gathering my things to get ready to go out. When I talk to him during these times, I see a mixture of anticipation and confusion as he listens for me to say “come on” or “you’re staying.” He’s searching for the words that have contextual meaning to him in a sea of the “useless” extraneous human words that have no immediate consequence: “I love you, you’re the cutest, aw, look how little you are.” All the words that I, as a human, feel so good saying to him all the while he’s patiently waiting for the punch line! (That’s not to say that these words are all meaningless all the time, I have been known to float a treat just for cuteness!)

You might be wondering what this overly sentimental post has to do with training, here it is: Whether or not dogs feel love, empathy, sorrow or even whether they might offer the above words as an appeasement signal to a human if they could (all topics for another blog), two things are certain:

  1. Dogs experience fear.
  2. Clear communication is essential to any dog-human relationship.

 Dogs can be fearful of other dogs, food bowls, people, wheelchairs, substrates, thunder, etc. The list is endless. Dogs, like every other living thing on the planet, are afraid of pain (think fight or flight). Animals have to be afraid of pain, or the threat of pain, to live long enough to pass on their genetic information.

Aversive training methods suggest to your dog that fear, pain or death could be a consequence of a behavior.  Shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, alpha rolls or pinning dogs down all result in fear and pain. I’ve often had people tell me that these things “don’t hurt.”  I once spoke to the owner of a chihuahua who was wearing a shock collar because he pulled on his leash and he barked too much. They told me that their trainer explained to them that the if the dog shakes and yelps, the collar is working properly. If there is no shaking or yelping, the voltage needs to be increased. The justification for the use of these tools is always “don’t worry, they’re painless.” I ask them, if it’s not through fear or pain, how or why do these items work? They have no answer for me. I can tell them that positive reinforcement methods work because the dog is excited to earn a treat, he is using his mind to solve a puzzle and his solution will result in a yummy bit of food, a toy or a walk, etc., and a wrong answer doesn’t result in fear or pain. When the dog is wearing a prong collar and the collar is popped and then released, is the dog excited about anything? What results will his compliance produce for him?

This is one reason why effective, clear communication between you and your dog is so important to master. It’s hard enough communicating with members of our own species (think about how many misunderstandings or confusing conversations you have had this week)! Now we have to figure out what our dogs are trying to communicate to us and our poor dogs get to try to figure out what we’re trying to communicate to them!

It’s important to learn what they are trying to communicate to us, so we can effectively communicate with them. It’s not important just for training, but to avoid “misunderstandings.” Knowing when your dog is overwhelmed will help you avoid a dog bite to yourself, friends, or strangers. It will help you prevent behavioral concerns from becoming serious. Know the signs of stress or fear. Realize that a closed mouth; dilated pupils; an unmoving body; a yawn; rapid lip-licking can be signs of stress. There are many others too. When people would have you believe that your dog is “calm, submissive,” know that in reality, your dog is fearful and has likely shut-down. 

Being aware of what you are communicating to your dog verbally, as well as with your body language, is also essential. Did you now that simply by leaning over to yell, you are conveying that you are out of control and you might kill him? Your dog now has to wonder which of these times that you’ve lost control you’ll finally carry out that threat! Even though that’s not at all the message you intended to convey, it is the message your dog receives.

It’s the same when you give a verbal cue. When you say “sit,” is it really the word your dog is responding too? Or is it the way your hand moved? Do you always lift an eyebrow or take a step closer to your dog when you say “sit?” For a fabulous discussion on this topic, see Erica Young’s blog on the Dog Star Daily website http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/antecedent-intervention.

Likewise, when you say “no,” what does that mean to your dog? If someone says “no” to you right now, what in the world does that mean? Does it give you any information besides possibly getting your attention?

Here’s a really common example: you’re walking down the street and your dog starts veering off to say hello to the dog passing you. You say “no!” “No” what exactly? No, don’t look at that dog, no don’t veer to the right, no don’t turn your head? How should the dog know which one you mean? Tell him what you want from him instead. How about “leave it” or “let’s go?”  Or teach him to look up at you every time he sees a dog until you signal to him to approach the other dog. You could teach him something like “say hello” so when he hears that cue, he knows it’s okay to say hello, when he doesn’t hear it he keeps walking along or looks up at you.

Communicate to your dog when you do like something, not just when you don’t. Reward her for sitting politely while strangers pet her, especially if you didn’t even ask her to!

When I left Special Dark at the vet that day, I could see that he was fearful. I wish I could have communicated to him somehow that we would be back for him. I wish that he could understand what all the procedures and shots are and that no one would ever hurt him on purpose. I try to think about Alex’s experience, and Special’s experience and do my best in the situations that I can control to ensure that there is no fear, no confusion. There are actually very few times when we don’t have control over the messages we are communicating to our dogs. And there are a myriad of things we can do to keep them from being fearful or stressed (including during trips to the vet!). The most important, basic and easy of these is to train and communicate with them in such a way that we are clear about what behaviors we like, to teach them behaviors we would like in place of ones we don’t, and make sure they don’t ever experience the fear that if they perform the wrong behavior, they might be subjected to pain. It’s that easy. You’ll have that well behaved dog you’re seeking, your bond will be stronger, and your dog will be happy.

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