Having conversations that are enjoyed by everyone!
Conversations with our dogs can be verbal, physical, and/or emotional depending on everything else that is going on in life. As humans, we tend to focus more on verbal communication which is generally easy to understand unless there is a language barrier or a hearing issue. Dogs tend to focus more on emotional conversations or connections with those they love. And then we both tend to meet in the middle with more physical conversations.
Physical conversations have a wide range of possibilities from gentle & kind force free touches all the way to down right abusive, violent & unethical touching. This seems to be where most trainers like to hang out because it is the easiest form of communication to teach to other humans. Old school trainers often teach their students how be more assertive, using hands on techniques that often involve pain to force the dog to stop doing behaviors that the owner doesn't like. Balanced trainers often use a mix of rewards to teach the behaviors they want to see repeated but also use physical actions such as leash corrections or using body pressure to tell a dog what not to do. Force Free trainers, like myself, use a different type of physical conversation that tells the dog what we want them to do in a specific moment such as hand signals, hand targets, and practiced body positioning.
Since this started in February, the month dealing with Emotions and Behaviors, let's look more at the Emotional Conversations with our dogs.
Understanding Emotional Conversations
Whether it's been with another human or other animal, most of us have had that moment of emotional connection where a simple glance possibly accompanied by a facial expression lets someone know how we are feeling. Perhaps we are sitting in a work meeting and the person talking is going on & on & on. Yet we know our stomach is growling and we are losing focus so we glance at one our friends in the room and almost instantly they return the glance in way that says, "Let's get lunch as soon as they shut up!" Perhaps the conversation was with an animal that approached us and climbed into our lap on a day we didn't feel so great and not long after the animal was sleeping peacefully and we were beginning to feel better. Those are emotional conversations that might also have included verbal or physical communication, but the emotional part was much stronger than any words or actions can convey.
Most dogs understand emotional conversations more easily then verbal or physical conversations. Some might argue with me on that in saying that dogs are often excellent at reading body language. But I would counter with is the physical body positioning or the emotions that are driving the physical body positioning. Honestly both might be part of the training conversation equation. However humans often understand the physical connections much better without needing me to explain them, yet struggle with the emotional connection so I try to be more helpful in explaining the emotions.
How Emotional Conversations Impact Training
One of the first things I like to start every training session with is the Emotional Conversation about "Feeling Safe, Calm, & Happy!" This is critical need to having a successful training session because dogs (and people) simply can't learn as easily if they do not feel safe, calm & happy. How long this conversation is depends on prior experiences between the parties involved.
Dr. Holly Tett, owner of Paws of Dog Training uses a Training Triangle which is basically a way to envision the relationship between the dog trainer or Canine Coach (my preferred title for what I do), the dog owner, and the dog. When successful this becomes a place where lines of communication are open from trainer to both owner and dog, from owner to both trainer and dog, & from dog to both owner and trainer. Each part of the triangle can communicate individually with the other parts, yet also together with all the parts at once.
As a Canine Coach, my goal is never start a training session until everyone in that session feels safe, calm, and happy. To some dog owners, this might seem like a pipe dream as they say their dog is never calm or their dog never feels safe away from home, or other issue. As a Canine Coach, it's my job to set up the environment and training session in a way that helps both owner and dog feel safe, calm, and happy and give them enough time to settle into the environment and at least begin to relax.
Most commonly this is a struggle with dogs that have large emotions that have been ignored repeatedly simply because the owner and dog were speaking 2 different languages and therefore struggling to communicate effectively. Sometimes these dogs get label as "reactive" or "aggressive" which are 2 separate categories to dog professionals but often lumped together for most dog owners. These dogs Do Not feel SAFE and until we get them to a point that do feel safe, we can't begin to adjust their behavior. If this sounds familiar, check out my upcoming workshop on "Helping the Fearful Dog Feel Safe!"
And the second most common struggle with dog owners is that the dog simply can't calm down. Many owners are surprised to learn that this often stems from the inability to feel safe. There are also "super athlete" dogs out there that tend to need more exercise then the average dog, thus struggle to settle down after exercise or excitement. You can read more about the Super Athlete here.
Dogs often have varying levels of anxiety that lead to the inability to calm down and those are often the cases where owners seek the help of a Canine Coach.
Once we have the Training Triangle all feeling Safe, Calm & Happy we can continue on to the actual conversation which should be educational to all points of the triangle.
Conversations in Training
As a Canine Coach in a training session I'm searching for bits of the conversation that show me how the other points (owner & dog) like to receive communication from me.
Humans communicate verbally and so the conversation often begins before the training session in email, text or a phone call. Humans also communicate emotionally so if I see the dog owner is struggling with a bad day, getting confused by what I'm trying to communicate, or simply feeling overwhelmed, it's my job to change not my message but how I communicate that message.
Dogs communicate more emotionally, through a connection, which leads to the behaviors they are offering and/or able to do in that moment. Where humans tend live in the past and/or future, dogs really stay in the moment much more easily. If they are struggling in the moment, it's my job as Canine Coach to communicate in clear way that helps the dog understand what I'd like them to do in that moment. If they are still struggling then it is up to me to change something in the environment, often reducing distractions or moving further away from distractions. And on the rare occasion that I can't achieve an emotional connection to hold a conversation with the dog, it's time to reschedule the session to set up another day with changes that will make success even easier for the dog.
So many times, I hear..."My dog does it for for you (the dog trainer) but won't do it for me at home!" This is often due to the way I control distractions around the training sessions but it often can happen when either the owner or the dog struggled with communication during the session. I generally don't see the dogs between sessions, but I can communicate verbally with dog owners between sessions which I prefer do via text in most situations or will ask an owner for a Zoom meeting or phone call if it needs to be a longer conversation. Free text support is included in all my 6 session packages, online classes, and Service Dog Mentoring packages and a provide a discount on additional zoom or phone calls between sessions to make it affordable to dog owners to get the help they need.
In addition to this support, I often encourage dog owners to join one of my FB groups that matches what we are working on. This opens up the lines of communication with other Canine Coaches and other dog owners who are working on the same goals. These groups become a place where each individual gets out of the group what they give. If you never post in the group or interact with the group, you won't find it beneficial. But if you post questions, frustrations, and even positive achievement posts, you will gain a feeling of support and connection with other dog owners. As people we need social acceptance, especially if we are struggling with something that we love.
My clients all love their dogs! We may not always love the behaviors we see from our dogs, but we never stop loving the dog! This is why I love my job as Canine Coach, by helping owners understand their dog, provide for the emotional needs of their dog, and adjust the behaviors the owner doesn't love, I get to see dogs and owners grow as a team and become the best they can be together. There is a sign at the Training Center that says "This is my HAPPY Place!" which is how I feel each and every time I see owner and dog grow as a team.
And continuing on with the Training Triangle, it's important that both owner and dog love their trainer or Canine Coach! The owner must feel safe to communicate their needs which are often extremely personal and sometimes takes personal strength on the owner's part to admit they don't know something or don't understand something. Often it's said that the dog loves the training session because they love all the treats! For me, it's important that dogs love more then just the treats and are gaining other reinforcers besides simply filling their belly. Dogs should walk out of a training session feeling like they are "King of the World!", they did a good job, and they had fun. If the human or the dog are not loving their training sessions then it's time to either have a very personal conversation with the trainer to see if there are ways to make it better or it's time to find a new trainer that aligns more with what you want for your team as dog owner & dog.
Next up on "Conversations with Your Dog!" is going to be 1-on-1 conversations that all owners can have with their dogs no matter what your end training goals are.