Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Clear Communication

 What are you asking your dog to DO? Do they understand?


The flip side of that is, what are they asking you to do? Do you understand them?

We ended the February 2023 discussion with developing Conversation Starters for training sessions. Check back to read that blog and others surrounding the topic of the month for February: Focus on Behaviors here. 

Once the conversation has started, it's important to make sure everyone involved is comprehending the discussion. We all know that when dogs talk to other dogs, they are not exactly speaking English! Human speech is not the native language for our furry friends. You may have seen some dogs that seem to understand hundreds of words, but I can guarantee they didn't start that way as a puppy. 

Here is short exert from our "Building a Better Bond Workshop" on the lesson that discusses cues:

We all use different types of cues whether we realize it or not. Verbal cue words (some call these commands), hand signals, body language, and environmental cues. And of course all of these cues have a time and place for team effectiveness. I think of everyone in my house as team members, people & dogs (other animals too) who work together towards the best possible life for all of us. Don't get me wrong, none of us are perfect and we don't live in total harmony but that's my goal.

In the dog training world, most of us think in verbal cues. Think of "sit" for example. This is one of the first things we teach a puppy. But do we just say the verbal cue and hope our puppy responds? No way, not at first! We use body language to lure the puppy into a sitting position & reward. Now most of us probably say the verbal cue as the pup sits and rewards when the action is complete. Thus teaching the pup to do the action. It doesn't take long to teach a hand signal and verbal cue to this action because puppies are sponges soaking it all up quickly. But what varies from that point is what does your pup learn first, the verbal cue or the hand signal, AND which is more important for that particular action? That's what this week's lesson is about.

Verbal cues can be difficult for me at times but I pick my commands with my speech problems in mind while I am planning for training. I have hand signs for most of my cues in case my voice doesn’t cooperate. I have a few environmental cues such as Lilly will sit instead of chasing small animals when she spots them before I do. She also sits for a leash and waits in the car until leashed.


One of the biggest issues I see as a dog trainer is when the human believes a dog should now a specific word, but instead the dog learned a different cue. For example, many of ask our dog to sit at the door before we let them outside or sit before we put their meal down. (See my recent blog on Routines!) We may think the dog is listening to the verbal cue in that context, yet the dog has learned an environmental cue such as, "when the human puts on her shoes and stands by the door, I'm supposed to sit by the door." This is called an environmental cue when the place the behavior happens or something is added to the environment that tells the dog what behavior they can do to earn reinforcement. My dogs easily know that I always use the bathroom before going out to play, but we don't always go out to play every time I use the bathroom. They have learned that some other environmental cues impact the outcome.  For example if I put shoes or a hat on before using the bathroom, we are likely going outside to potty, play, or go for a car ride. Since humans generally rely more on verbal context, we simply assume they know the word we are giving them for a cue. 

Speaking Dog!

I often get asked if I speak to animals and/or do animals speak to me.  This is trick question in my mind.  It's not that I'm psychic and reading the mind of the dog in front of me. But a dog's body language can tell us a whole ton about how they are feeling, what they want most in that moment, and what behaviors they enjoy vs do simply because we ask them to do it. Dogs mostly speak with their body and I've learned ways to communicate using my body language to ask the dog if they will do a certain behavior. 

Many dog owners use hand signals, whether they do it intentionally or not. Have you ever watched someone who talks with their hands?  Lots of owners give their dog a specific hand signal for simple behaviors such as sit or down without even thinking about it. As a Canine Coach, my goal is to help dog owners THINK about it! When we examine our body language, it can be easy to see if we are giving clear communication signals or sending mixed messages.

Azul learned early on that my words easily get messed up! I might tell him to go left when I really want him to go right or vice versa. When my words get messed up, it's part of the vocabulary center of my brain and I can't really fix that as it's disability related. However, my body language is not carried out by the same part of the brain. Basically, it was much easier to teach my arms and hands to give left/right cues then it was to teach my mouth. 

Often dog owners will ask, "How come my dog will do it for you, but they won't do it for me?" That answer is simple! I've spent years paying attention to subtle body movements that I do when I'm around dogs. Originally the intent was to train my dogs to respond without verbal cues. But the skill surpassed that into being what dog trainers refer to as "good mechanics" that makes learning so much easier for the dogs. I often teach owners how to mirror my body language. The problem then becomes, what comes natural for me, isn't always natural for others. So once an owner learns the concept of clear communication through body language, they can change the body language cues to whatever is more natural for them. 

With all the dogs I've trained, I've only seen about 5 different hand signals or sit. Many were formed based on how the owner holds a treat when they want the dog to sit and a few others were more creative based on ASL or some other language known by humans. My son went through a stage where all his hand signals were based on common Star Trek hand positions. Our family loves the Vulcan hand gesture for "Live Long & Prosper!" I still struggle with delivering that signal naturally. LOL

Clear Communication

The bottom line is dogs learn more quickly when we use clear communication. Whether we teach them verbal cues, hand/body cues, or environmental cues doesn't really matter. The best dog trainers & owners often use all 3 types of cues, just not perhaps for all the same behaviors. For example, I have a verbal cue and hand signal cue for sit, down, and stay. Often I give both signals at the same time, but sometimes I will only use one or the other. 

I often encourage my advanced training clients to test which type of signal their dog responds to more quickly and more reliably. This can totally depend on the situation and distractions present when testing the cue. For example, when Azul really wanted to chase a bunny this morning, he was not hearing my verbal cues, nor was he looking at my body to get signals there. I used an environmental cue that I've conditioned and relied on heavily to clearly communicate that I was not going in the bushes the bunny had just fled. Most of you know Azul always wears a harness and if we are on a casual sniff-a-bout I only clip the leash to the back clip so Azul knows he has freedom to move around and sniff. But if/when I need him to slide into work mode, I use a dual clip set up with the leash clipped to the back of the harness and also clipped to the front of the harness or his collar. So when the bunny jumped out in front of us, I quickly reeled Azul in, bringing the leash in short and placing his front clip on. This told Azul it was time to work and although he really didn't want to work because the bushes were too distracting, he knew that we were going to start walking the other direction. In this situation Azul's eyes and ears were too distracted to listen to any other cue, but his body still had to pay attention to the way the leash was connected to him.

I've relied heavily on environmental cues while training Azul. Belle is not there yet! To her all environments are overstimulating so she is not in a place to learn which environments have what type of expectations for behavior. With Belle I use way more verbal and body language cues at the moment.  One of the biggest body cues I use is hand targets. Belle knows to watch my hands and if my hand drops to her level, she is supposed to touch her nose to my hand. Since she knows this signal so well, I've been able to use to teach heel, recall, and many other behaviors without adding the cues. I will eventually add verbal cues to those behaviors, but I don't want to overwhelm her puppy brain by adding too many cued behaviors at once.

Hand targets is often one of the first things I teach all my clients! It's the first step in developing clear communication that both humans and dogs understand.

If you'd like to learn more about clear communication, send me an email and I'll send you the entire lesson on Cues from the Building a Better Bond Workshop! You can request this for free by email to yooperpaws@gmail.com.

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