Recently I was setting up for a workshop and needed to put my drink in the refrigerator but there was a gate in my way and my brain was already on to the next task. There was someone on the other side of the gate, so I simply held my drink out in an effort to communicate that I wanted her to put in the fridge. Well, because I didn’t actually tell her what I wanted, she opened the can and handed it back to me. (she “guessed” what I wanted because I didn’t communicate) I then said “OH! I just needed it put in the fridge” and we got a good laugh out of it, but it really brings me to my point, communication is a KEY component to any interaction that we have with a human or a dog.

Today I want to talk about where our communication may break down and how we can be better communicators when working and training our dogs.

As I grow and learn as a dog trainer, I have been thinking a lot about communication or what information are we providing to our dog for the task we are trying to complete. There are many ways we can communicate with our dogs – verbal, hand signal, body language etc.

When we start each training session we need to consider a few things:

  • How can I set my dog up for success?
  • Does he have any cued behaviors that will give him important information about the task we are about to do?
  • Do I need to stop and assess whether or not a foundation behavior needs shaped and put on cue before tackling my originally planned behavior

The number one communication issue I see is that dogs are not being given a “cue” that indicates what we want. Often performance handlers do not put all trained behaviors on cue or they only put their performance related behaviors on cue leaving other behaviors in a “not fully trained” or “grey” area for the dog.

If we create “grey” area in our training, it can cause frustration and is aversive to your dog. It doesn’t mean that your dog won’t keep trying as they are likely to get a reward but as the communication breaks down, it makes the training process less efficient and causes a lot of confusion. In the absence of communication, these dogs are guessing what we want and guessing during training has consequences. Confusion causes stress, displacement and lack of focus in our dogs.

Time and time again, I hear from people that they “don’t have time for fitness” and I am going to go out on a limb and say that part of the “time factor” has to do with poor communication between dog and handlers due to lack of fully trained and cued behaviors. For instance, when asking a dog to stand on 2 pieces of equipment, the behaviors needed might be:

  • Front foot targeting which mean “put your front feet on that”. (although many dogs will put front feet on anything you toss on the floor).
  • Rear foot targeting = “put your rear feet on that”. (many use back up but back is a 4 footed behavior not a 2 footed behavior so often it takes many tries to get the desired position)
  • Stillness - how do you get a high drive dog to offer stillness? Putting a nose touch, nose touch hold or chin rest on cue is the best way to get stillness. This gives your dog a job and makes it so they are not focused on your hands and your movement.

Set your dog up for success by putting behaviors on cue and leave the “guessing game” behind.

Of course, I have come up with a solution. Train some target behaviors and put them on cue to help improve communication with your dog. These classes and others can be found HERE.