Are you having emotional conversations with your dog?
When emotions enter a conversation, they can be 1-sided with each individual in that conversation only listening to their emotions to drive what they communicate or 2-sided with each individual in that conversation sharing their emotions and listening to the other emotions that are being shared. This is true in conversations between 2 or more humans and it's also true in conversations with our dogs.
Humans might communicate their emotions verbally, with body language and with behavior; yelling, laughing, tears, stiff/loud movements, running away to hide. Our dogs communicate much the same way leading with behaviors first. Our dog might be extremely happy with wiggly butts and squirrelly behavior when we return to them, then turn around and bark or lunge when a stranger comes. During both of these situations the dog's body language supports the behaviors they do in the moment. And only when those behaviors do not achieve the end goal, do those behaviors amp up to add a verbal or bark, growl, whine behavior.
This post is going to be about helping us to improve our emotional conversations with our dogs. But first you need to understand your dog's emotions and how they impact the conversation. Check out these posts from February 2022.
This post explains how our dog's emotions and excitement level effect the behaviors they give us.
This post explains Core Effect Space in simple terms that any dog owner can use to better understand their dog.
This is a fun video conversation between myself and fellow Dog Trainer, Cindy Campbell about how we can better connect with our dogs to show them how much we love them.
Moonbow waiting for her handler to start the conversation.
Unless you have a really strong relationship with a human, we generally start with a conversation starter. This might be, "Hi, How was your day?" or if we are in a group or at a party it might be an ice breaker type question, "Hey does anyone else hate anchovies?" A conversation starter, among humans, generally has 1of 2 purposes; figuring out the emotional state of the other human OR trying to establish a connection with another human that we perhaps do not have a connection with yet.
But are you offering conversation starters to your dog?
What would a conversation starter with your dog even look like?
First let's look at conversation starters that reach out to a dog that we have a relationship with already. This starter is probably a bit easiest for both human and dog because they generally start when we are in the happy, more relaxed realm. Arriving home might start a conversation simply because we've spent time apart and are now together again, but this can be filled with elevated emotions. Instead I want to focus on developing conversation starters when both you and your dog are feeling safe, calm, and happy. Here are a few conversation starters you might already be doing.
- Your dog starts the conversation by waking you up in the morning. We know that is their way to say it's time to outside.
- You might start a new conversation a bit later asking them if they want to come inside for breakfast. This might lead to begging them to come in for breakfast if you have a husky that loves to stay out.
- While relaxing in the day, your dog might role up on their back, belly up and wag their tail begging you to come rub their belly.
- Your dog might bring you a toy indicating they want to play.
Our dog's are pretty natural at starting conversations with us. Their behavior and body language is their best tools to convey what they need in that moment. Are we listening?
None of the examples above involved really strong emotions coming from our dogs. Strong emotions are typically full blown conversations where as conversation starters are generally a slower, calmer invitation of sorts to have a longer conversation. If we can learn to apply this invitation style conversation starter to our training sessions and outings with our dogs we can improve the conversation that takes place in those moments.
Let's look at conversation starters designed to improve our training sessions.
Generally when starting a training session we want our dog to willingly join in the session. Therefore the conversation starter might be as simple as grabbing your treat bag and leash, then your dog shows up ready for action. We often create these simple starters without even realizing it. Sometimes we might be training something that is brand new and therefore we don't have a history of previous conversation starters to draw on. This would be the ice breaker of the party. And this would also be where we want to set the emotional tone that we hope to achieve during the training session by creating questions that elicit the desired emotion or the transition from the current emotional state to the more desired emotional state before we begin training.
As a Canine Coach, when I show up for a session with a client I've worked with a few times before the dogs are generally over-excited and happy to see me. In this situation I want to give conversations starters that help bring that excitement down as quickly as possible. I might get down to their level so I can give the petting they are seeking in slow, more controlled movements from me. I might also pay more attention to verbally have a conversation with their human as a way of communicating to the dog that we are not going to start having fun until they are in control of themselves. Pretty much any time our dogs are running on high energy emotions we want to be using calm conversation starters.
There are other times when our dogs are more calm, but what we are training needs some higher energy and we might need some conversation starters that help the dog get amped up a bit. A good example of this would be a handler playing tug with their dog right before entering an agility practice course. The dog might have been holding a down on a mat or chilling in the crate and the handler wants to build up energy for a faster run on the course. Tug becomes that conversation starter. Going from calm to excited can be done pretty easily with game based conversation starters.
Sometimes we don't want that high excitement, but instead our goal is a high level of focus. This might be for a rally course or even a public access outing for Service Dog in Training. In that situation, grabbing a tug toy or a tennis ball might not be the right conversation starter because we want the dog to buy in to the session but we don't want that high energy. This is where I developed my Positions Game as a conversation starter before puppy Azul and I walked into any public area. The game is designed to build focus slowly to prepare for the actual conversation that will take place soon.
Lastly let's look at the conversation starters that happen when we drive to a park or walking trail with the intent to go on an adventure together. I think this is one of those areas we often have 1 sided conversations without listening to the other side of the conversation. Naturally the dog is over-excited in the car and we ignore their behavior because we know the walk will help get some of that energy out. We as humans are commonly focusing on the end of the walk before the walk even gets started. Our dogs are focused on everything they smell, hear and see right now!
When this conversation starts off 1-sided like this, with both parties ignoring the other, the main conversation tends to not go so well. We as the humans, can change the conversation starter to help improve the conversation that takes place on the walk. Here are a few simple conversation starters to help:
- Over-excitement often starts in the car therefore we need to start the conversation in the car! We might prefer some fast music on the drive, but tuning the radio to a slower station or even a podcast can help bring that energy level down. We can even pull over and park somewhere to help our dogs calm down a bit if needed. The Canine Car Club would be great for anyone who really struggles with excitement in the car! Azul as learned that we simply won't get out of the car until his energy calms down a bit and he is in an emotional state where he can hear my cues.
- Another place where excitement rapidly increases is when we step out of the car and the dog's nose hits the ground running. Since we are looking forward to the end of the walk, we want to take off right away but that again sets the tone for a bad conversation. Instead we do some work near the car until we see our dog's energy and emotions hit a much better state. With the dog's nose driving this need to go sniff, this is often a time to use our smelliest reinforcement to start the conversation. I might let Azul reach that very first sniff spot, moving us out of the parking lot and into some green space but then we are going to stay there long after he is done sniffing that space and returns his focus on me. In this moment, he still wants to race to the next smell and his focus on me begs me to GO. This is where we can use our smelly treats in a scatter feed in the grass or doing a hand target game or playing any games that build value for our dogs sniffing with us instead of by themselves.
- Once we start on our walk, inevitably a distraction almost always pops up and it's time for another conversation starter. You could look at the entire walk as one long conversation, yet we don't typically stay engaged with our dogs the whole walk. The conversation might start out with tons of back and forth communication, but then 1 party gets mildly distracted leading to both parties doing their own thing for a bit until someone starts the conversation again a bit later. When a distraction pops up in the environment, we need to start that conversation back up ASAP and make it an engaging conversation that brings our dogs back to us. We all know boring conversations end quickly because we simply stop participating. We may not want to jump to a high energy starter because we don't want to raise our dog's energy level any higher than we need to. But we do have to match or slightly one up the energy level coming from the distraction to help our dogs choose us.
Those are all real life activities where we use conversation starters. But we also can build starters into our training sessions. Again this needs to match the energy level we want for that training session. Conversation starters in training sessions can be thought of as a warm up before an exercise workout or before the big game. Often with puppies, we will run through some of the simple cues the pup has already learned to warm up their brains for what we want to teach in that session. With Service Dogs we may warm up hand targets or the foundation skills that will lead into the main task we are going to train. If I'm building a stronger retrieve, I might drop an item at my feet to put my dog in the retrieve mindset before I work on long distance retrieves or going to find a specific item. Building on previously taught behaviors can add momentum to our training session. Shaping plans are another way to start the conversation that relies on beginning a few steps back from where you left off in the last session to build up momentum for making progress.
This is going to be blog 1 in a 3 blog series. Next up is Having Emotional Conversations with Your Dog. The final blog will be Ending the Conversation Positively.