I sometimes ask my students if they talk to their dogs. Most often, the answer is ‘Yes’. Then I ask them if their dog talks back to them. And I usually get silence or a ‘No’.
The reality is that most of our dogs are trying to communicate with us all the time! We all know when the bark or make other sounds, but pay attention to their body language! Body language is the primary avenue of communication in the dog world. They are watching your body language all the time – whether you realize it or not. And they read you pretty darn well!
I’m not talking about “He pooped on the carpet because he was mad at me” or “She’s just stubborn”. Those are human interpretations of things that aren’t there. I’m talking about reading arousal and frustration levels amongst other things. You dog exhibits other basic emotions throughout the day such as sadness, boredom, happiness, and excitement. There are several great books available on reading the body language of dogs.
Training sessions are basically exercises in communication between two species. The use of positive training techniques opens he doors for mutual communication between the trainer and the dog. It’s an opportunity for you and your dog to do something together. Two species actively participating in doing something together – that’s pretty special when you think about it!
When you are training, listen to your dog! Don’t be afraid to alter your training plan in response to what they are telling you! Is he becoming frustrated or disengaged with what you are trying to ask of him? If so, try to find a way to more clearly communicate what you are asking of him. Sometimes it helps to change your approach or to back up a few steps to train the behavior. Sometimes you just need to find something more reinforcing for your dog. If the session has been going on too long, it helps to just take a break from training and play for a little while before continuing. If you’re not making any progress, it could be a good time to stop working on this particular behavior, rethink your approach, and come back to it another time.
Note that a certain amount of frustration while learning something new is normal and it can actually be a good thing. If the training session becomes so frustrating that your dog is starting to shut down or you are becoming frustrated yourself, then it’s time to stop and do something different. All dogs (and people) have different amounts of frustration that they are able to handle so these levels will change from team to team.
When I train a behavior, I have an idea of what the final criteria should be and I start with small steps with the intent of guiding my dog that direction. If my dog suddenly takes steps I didn’t expect and I see that I can use that somehow, I will spontaneously alter the path towards getting to the behavior criteria that I want. In short, I read the dog as I go and respond to what they are telling me.
Your relationship with your dog should be a two way street. Make sure you are listening when your dog talks to you and respond to it. Your dog will be happy to continue the conversation!