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.
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.
Recently 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 and 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.