Chances are that my dog isn’t any smarter than your dog but a very good chance that I’m more proficient than you are at reading dogs. It has nothing to do with technique or that I have more training than you do or that I have a smarter breed of dog than you do. How bout these wonder dogs? Petey from The Little Rascals, Rin Tin Tin, Benji, Beethoven, Eddie from Frasier, Old Yeller, Hootch and many others. The only difference between those dogs and your dog is that the trainers knew how to read dog body language and when to reward, when to hold back, when to move forward and when to stop. The other piece and equally as important is that the trainer is aware of her own body language, energy and intention.
A good dog trainer knows how to read the body languages of dogs as they witness the learning process that the dog is going through; implementing rewards at the precise moment that they see the dog is making the slightest effort to understand. This could be a softness in the eye, blinking perhaps or ears forward or when to wait because the ears went sideways in confusion, a paw lift in anticipation or anxiety, a lowered head in appeasement or a lowered head in fear. Without this understanding, is it any wonder your relationship with your dog is not one of joy, enthusiasm and mutual respect. Getting caught up in technique and or timing isn’t the issue because when you can read dogs your timing will be impeccable.
No matter the task, be it teaching sit, offering a paw, going into their crate, dogs are talking and we can engage our dog or shut them down by not understanding their language. The difference between a happy dog and a dog whose spirit is crushed has little to do with intelligence or technique, rather our own capacity to talk dog.
Here are three typical examples:
1 – My dogs and I have a favorite off leash hike where there is a creek with a swimming hole that we regularly get to cool off in. It’s near our home so depending on my schedule they may or may not get to go for a dip. As we near the creek, I’ll get a look from one of my dogs. It’s very subtle and most wouldn’t even notice. He’s lumbering along on the trail and about 30 feet from the trail to the creek, he’ll give a slight look over his shoulder to see if I’m looking at him or not. Of course, I am looking at him because we are that connected and he’s checking to see if this is a YES, go for it or NOPE not today, buddy. If it’s a YES, I don’t do anything but mosey toward the trail but if it’s a NOT TODAY day, all I have to do is shake my head NO and point the main trail and that’s it. We’re on our way home. The other wonderful bit to this sweetness is that the other dogs look at him, then me, then back at him to get their cue to see if it’s a swimming day or not. I glance at all of them and back at Rascal and away we go. All done in body language.
2 – I’m teaching a puppy not to jump on me. When she does, I bring her feet to the floor and reward. She jumps again, I do the same. This time she jumps but her paws are curled coming down without making contact. I praise for the effort of jumping but not touching. Next time she jumps halfway up with feet curled. Again, I praise for the effort. Next time, she doesn’t jump and I lavish her with praise and lots of petting. It’s not the goal or teaching the command/cue OFF. There is no command necessary to teach a dog not to jump. It is really this simple. I’m watching her body language and process of learning and taking each baby step into account, praising or waiting and knowing the difference.
3 – Your dog brings you a shoe for a game of fetch. Her ears are forward, tail held high, a slight play bow and she’s ready to roll. You yell at her while chasing her yelling Drop My Shoe. She’s either crushed, afraid or excited about the chase. A huge opportunity to train is lost because of your lack of understanding body language only thinking of the end goal DON’T TOUCH MY SHOES. For her, your shoe is a toy, just like her ball or any of her other toys that has your smell on it. She was asking for play and you had a perfect teaching moment of what’s appropriate and what’s not. The teaching moment is to say Thank You, Show Me, What’s This or something similar very quietly while sitting down on the floor with your hands in your lap observing her entire body telling you that she realized it’s not time to play. You’ll see her relax from alert, play bow, tail high and ready, to softer eyes, softer ears, relaxed body, lowered head and walking towards you in appeasement while you take the toy replacing it with one of hers. If this is indeed a true first time of (Can we play fetch?) with your shoe, this response from you will illicit this response from her. If it’s become a bad habit, doing the same thing on your part could illicit some of these behaviors: running off to see if you’ll chase her (you’re on the floor remember), so coming back to see why not, then either laying down w/ it in her mouth until she sees you’re still not reacting, then dropping it as she lay wondering what’s going on. If she goes into another room to chew on it then it’s a whole different training opportunity of which this blog is not about because I’m speaking of ways of teaching dogs BEFORE this type of behavior ever develops because we took the time to read and respond appropriately in the beginning.
Teaching dogs is a process. If you go from A to Z without taking the baby steps of witnessing their state of being you will not achieve your goal of enjoying a well trained dog who is full of life and eager for more.
We have these opportunities to teach when we understand what dogs are trying so hard to tell us. Dogs are talking all the time. In a 5 minute training session they may exhibit 10 different body parts telling you what state they’re in. If you want an enthusiastic engaged dog, learn from them, learn for them and you’ll enjoy the kind of connection you so desperately seek with your dog.
Remembering that all dogs process things at a different rate we will have no expectations, only refining OUR dog reading skills, to illicit the best in our dogs, having them happily engaged in the process. No matter the task being taught, the goal is not what we’re after, it’s the journey to the goal that’s important. It’s about communicating and if we’re not communicating we can’t teach, therefore, we’re not bonding.
Learn, please, they’re begging you to understand their language. It’s a blast when you are able to do this. It’s not magic just learning a new language. Have fun and if you don’t have the Dog Decoder App yet, what are you waiting for?