3 Common Communication Mistakes Dog Handlers Make


I was beginning to think I was the only one noticing, until a friend mentioned that she noticed that people are not communicating with each other as much these days. I know that might seem like an odd statement with all of us connected via social media, texting, and emailing all the time, but it really does seem that something is being lost in today’s media rich-world with personal communication. When communications break down between people, it can lead to hurt feelings, fights, distrust, and eventual disengagement between the parties. Not surprisingly, this also happens between our dogs and between our dogs and us. In this blog, I want to look at some examples of how to communicate better with each other and with our dogs.

As a trainer and instructor, I am in a position where I must be clear with my clients and students as to what I need them to do with their dogs in order to be successful in either handling the dogs or training them. What is more important in my mind is that we are clear in communicating to the dog what we want or need them to do for us.

One common mistake I see is that the leash handling is telling the dog one thing while the human is saying something opposite of the intent of the leash handling. When teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash what I most often see is people with a death grip on the leash and so much tension the poor dog is sure there is something wrong. When I mention this to people they realize the dog’s leash is taunt in their hands and give some slack only to wrap the remainder of the lead around their hand! If the lead is not totally loose and held in a relaxed manner the dog will not learn to walk on a loose lead. To show people what I mean I will take the lead from them, gently drape it over my fingers with my arm very relaxed by my side and take off walking. Many of the previously tugging dogs will simply go along and follow me, some might take off in which case I can grip the end of the lead before they jerk it out of my hand and turn around and walk off in the opposite direction from which they were headed. After 4 or 5 minutes of this, almost all dogs will begin to walk beside me with the leash very casually draped over my fingers. No tension (person) = no tension (dog).

Another common miscommunication I see is with the word DOWN.


Boo showing the “Down”


English is a difficult language for humans, let alone dogs that are trying to learn it. You need to establish one meaning for the word and STICK TO IT! I have to emphasize that last point, as this is where the problems really occur, if you teach it to mean one thing then start adding in nuances that you want the dog to understand. They just don’t well with things like that so keep it simple. I like to teach “DOWN = go into a position where your body is lying down on the ground.” I use OFF instead of DOWN for “get off the furniture or off me,” etc.

The last common miscommunication I see is people not reading their dogs correctly. With the medical alert dog training a key part of the training is to teach the dog to give a very clear signal that an “event” is happening with their person. For a diabetes alert dog this would be a change in blood glucose, for example. This alert needs to be clear and unmistakably related to the event the dog is trained to alert to. What often happens however is the dog is trying to tell the person what is happening and the person is not paying attention. If, for example, your dog never bugs you about anything and all of sudden starts to pester you, your first thought should be he/she is trying to tell you something. Many people miss this and believe the dog is trying to be a pest. I see this all the time with housebreaking issues with puppies but it is particularly critical with the medical alert dogs. To overcome this situation, start from the beginning of training to set limits on how and when the dog can touch you. You would not want an alert dog to have a trick of “give me your paw,” or a cue to go outside to relieve themselves by pawing at you. In training the medical alert dogs, save any bodily contact with you for their work. If this rule is adhered to, you can be assured if the dog then comes to you he is telling you something is not normal.

TabouliHeadstudyRecently I got a message from a trainer in my program about a diabetes alert dog. The message relayed that the dog jumped up on her person’s bed (which she is not allowed to sleep on) and started licking the mouth of her person and pawing at him to wake him up. He did not get up, but the commotion woke up someone else in the house who did get the person up. When the glucose level was checked, it was quite low. This was good communication on the part of the dog, clearly not the dog’s normal behavior, and easily recognized, as being a signal that something is wrong. This behavior was well rewarded and hopefully will continue as the dog transitions from training to living with her diabetic person.

If you have not taken the time to read up on dog body language andGolden_Doodle_Running signals, I urge you to browse some titles at the local dog book store or check out some videos on You Tube so you can become familiar with what the dog is saying to you. They certainly take the time to learn all the nuances of our body language, we owe it to them to try and learn theirs.

Size Doesn’t Matter

By Debby Kay © January 2015 all rights reserved 

When I was growing up my father kept a kennel of hounds, so all the dogs I knew where his dogs. I asked for my own and finally when I was six he got me my first dog very own dog, a female tri colored Chihuahua that I named Candy. Over my years in dogs I have had a total of 19 Chihuahuas and have really come to enjoy the breed. I mentioned to my husband Sam I would love to have another one that I can also use to demonstrate my training methods at my workshops, but it would have to a very special dog if he/she was to represent what a small service dog can be like.

Several months ago a russet colored Chihuahua at a Dog Days street festival stole my heart. He was wearing a tiny scarf that said, “Adopt Me”. I watched him for quite some time as dozens of dogs of every breed and size imaginable went by. He stood quietly unless one of them stopped to sniff and then he would sniff them back, wagging his tail the whole time. The shelter volunteer that was holding his leash had no awareness of what the dog was doing. At one point two people each walking well-muscled pit bull terriers stopped to chat with the girl holding the Chihuahua. Since the people were engaged in conversation they failed to see the challenging stare that the two pits were giving each other. The tiny Chihuahua offered some calming signals to the two larger dogs but neither were paying any attention to him and in an instant the Pits were lunging and snarling at each other over the top of the Chihuahua. Quickly the Chihuahua backed off a safe distance and watched quietly as the two dogs tried to rip each other apart. When the whole mess was finally stopped and the aggressive dogs left, the little dog just looked after the retreating dogs with a look of amusement. I smiled and walked over to the Shelter table and asked if I could adopt the little dog whose name I learned was Boo.

head study of red colored chihuahua

Boo the Chihuahua making himself at home.

Boo acts like he has lived in our house all his life. The integration has been seamless. You would think a Chihuahua in a house with 15 Labrador Retrievers would be hiding all the time but nothing could be further from reality. Boo walks with the Labs and hunts birds with them and will retrieve anything that he can carry or drag just like the Labs. He realizes he is small and will stay out of the way when the Labs get crazy and start jumping around a lot but otherwise they treat him with the same respect they give any other adult dog; size doesn’t matter.

I am in the process now of training Boo to be the demo dog for the medical detection workshops I teach. I want people to know not all service dogs have to be medium to large size dogs like Labradors. Small dogs have a definite place in the world of service dogs. They still have very good noses and can alert on scent changes in a human, they are capable of activating an alarm, and can very well get someone to help if needed. For many people who live in apartments with limited space the small dog is the perfect answer. The best part about the smaller dogs is they fit into places the larger dogs do not such as on public transportation. The down side though is many of them are not as willing to work as some of the larger typical service breeds are, so finding a really good one can be a long and arduous search. I got very lucky when I found Boo. He is smart, willing, and just slightly larger than most Chihuahuas, weighing in at 8.1 pounds, which is about as small as you would want for a detector dog.

Some other considerations when looking at size for your potential detector dog is their face structure. Be aware that dogs with too short a muzzle could possibly have breathing problems, which would interfere with the detector work. Boo had a nice length muzzle for his size, which helps him with his scent work. Many little dogs I had been looking at only wanted to sleep and had no interest in work, so it was refreshing to see Boo with his eager to please attitude and insatiable appetite for tasty treats. Both of these qualities help a dog learn the scent lessons they will need so they are high on my list when screening potential dogs. As with the larger breeds, the smaller breeds have their own list of potentially serious genetic problems such as patella and teeth issues to name a few, so it is important to learn what these are for the small breed you are considering. Boo checked out clean on all these points as well.

The obedience training part of the service dog work with a small dog is the same as with any other dog. I do not make any excuses for a dog to not learn obedience just because they are small. There is no need to carry a small dog everywhere, they are capable of walking and in my opinion they seem to prefer it. If I do a lot walking, Boo does get tired as he is working twice as hard or more to keep up with my stride, so I make sure he has sufficient rest time to recover and have also taken care to build up his stamina. When I first got Boo I enrolled him immediately into a Manners Class at the local obedience school where he graduated 8 weeks later with his AKC Canine Good Citizen award.

Author with her Chihuahua

Boo at his graduation from Manners Class.

The greatest challenge in training the small dog as an alert dog has been with the alert itself. It is easy to teach the sit and paw when a person is in the house, or at a desk such as in an office. What is more difficult is to teach the alert when you are out walking. To overcome this obstacle, I am working with Boo to have him grab a tab and tug on it. I have tried several different ways of doing this and may have hit on the right design when it occurred to me that something on his leash would make the most sense. I’m working with my service dog leash maker now to get that set up and can’t wait to share the photos with everyone when we get the final design worked out. I mention all this to point out that while training a small dog is a challenge and there are limitations to what they can do, there is no reason you can’t train your little guy to help out and experience the success I am finding as I move along the program with Boo.

Three Dangerous Threats to your Service Dog

By Debby Kay ©December 2014 all rights reserved

Some dangerous threats to your service dog are apparent: for example, a falling tree or speeding car. There are other threats however, that are not so obvious and it is those I want to focus on for this blog.

One danger I see repeatedly at my workshops is a lack of handler awareness. New handlers in particular are so concerned with what they are doing that they forget to watch their dogs. One eye should always be on what your dog is doing, looking for any clue from their body posture as to what they are thinking; in this manner you can anticipate and perhaps prevent a possible catastrophe. It takes practice to develop that watchful eye but it is an essential skill for keeping your dog safe. Dogs are like Hoovers, vacuuming up anything on the ground, whether it is be edible or not. This habit has led to many sick dogs ending up at the emergency vet’s office.

dog sniffing the walkway

Until trained many dogs will eat anything they find on a walk

Teaching the “leave it” command is useful for avoiding situations where your dog might be eyeing some tempting morsel of moldy spit tobacco wad on the sidewalk like it was a choice filet mignon. There are a couple of ways to teach this, the one I find most useful, however, starts when we are teaching the pups to walk on the lead. I will put a small bowl with a nice treat in it on the ground and walk the pup by it; at first a few feet away and gradually working in closer. As soon as I see the pup starting to look at the bowl I will tell them “leave it” and then ask them to look at me and when they do they get a very tasty morsel. With patience you can get a puppy in one lesson to learn to ignore the food in the dish. With repetition you can teach the puppy to ignore just about anything on the ground and instead look up to you.

When you stop to talk to someone, don’t forget to keep an eye on what your dog is doing. They should be sitting or lying by your side. If the person you are chatting with has a dog, you need to be especially careful of a potential conflict between the dogs if one of them offers threatening stares. All these things are related to training and handler experience, for sure, and are pretty straightforward.

Not so straightforward, however, at least when it comes to training the service dog, is the training of the body. Many programs lack any type of physical conditioning program that allows the dog to be more aware of their body, stretches, and develops muscles and tendons in ways that helps prevent injury and generally keeps the dog more fit. These things become important when a dog has to get into a tight seating space, ride in small quarters in a vehicle, remain for some time curled up in a small space on an airplane or under a table at a restaurant. When the dog gets up, if they are not taught how to stretch and get their body ready for work, there is a strong potential for injury. Sometimes the wear and tear on the body is not apparent with a young dog, but it is very apparent as the dogs get older when repeated bad habits will begin to manifest as restricted movement. I have had several working Labradors over the age of 17 who remained flexible and moving up to their passing. I attribute their good physical condition to breeding but in larger part to an excellent physical conditioning program.

The last threat to the service dog is that of hidden chemical dangers in the environment. As we move into winter, with ice and snow affecting many areas where the service dogs are working, it is really important to be aware of the chemicals used to treat these conditions on the sidewalks and parking lots where we will be walking our dog. Your dog absorbs all these chemicals through their feet, and if they are in a high enough concentration, they can be highly toxic. Sometimes, however, we may not see or realize the residue left on the pavement and this build-up on the dogs’ pads might in itself not be enough to make them sick until they lie down and start to clean their feet. You may want to carry a set of boots for your dog if you live in an area where this is a constant threat to your dog. Other threats in the environment are some types of chemicals that have been used to treat the common areas where we might be taking our dog for exercise or an airing. Most companies that apply chemicals will post flags or signs when it is done, but you can not always count on this, so it is best to stay with areas where you know how they are maintained.

Since dogs lie on the floor and are otherwise close to floor all other times, it is also important to pay attention to what is used to clean the floors; the same is true for carpeting. If you are buying new carpeting for your house or office, it would be best to choose a natural fiber and one that is not treated with stain protection. Constant exposure to these types of chemicals are not healthy. You can check on the status of anything you buy by doing an Internet search on the manufacturer’s website. Those few minutes of your time can help your dog live a healthier, longer life.

Wishing everyone a joyous holiday season and prosperous new year.