When it comes to communication, successful communicators know their audience and tailor their message and communication style accordingly. This is particularly important when it comes to dog training, because it involves two totally different species trying to communicate with each other, typically about a brand new concept. Much easier said than done, right? Yikes! Best not to take any piece of it for granted. Message Sent – Was the message received?
The most common scenario involves a human trying to teach their dog to do something they want them to do, for example, “Sit.” The dog provides feedback about the interaction in the form of either a blank stare or a version of the target behavior; after all dogs communicate “loud and clear” if you know how to read them.
Jean Donaldson described it best in her groundbreaking book, “The Culture Clash” when she describes the gap between the way that humans communicate via our “primate filter,” and the way that dogs communicate, which is totally different. We must keep this in mind to be successful canine communicators. The primate filter concept is that humans are naturally very verbal and overly concerned with words and language (not to mention our opposable thumbs) we’re just hard-wired like that. Dogs are much more about sensory input like smell, sight, space, hearing and consequences with no big emphasis on words or sentences or dramatic paragraphs. Their main “tell” is action.
The best way to communicate with a dog is by minimizing both movement and chatter. When teaching a dog a new behavior, the less distracting you are the better, since they do not have the command of your chosen language that you wish they did. Humans tend to send out a crazy amount of signals when they attempt to communicate with each other, let alone with a different species. Primarily we speak, we talk, we wave our hands around, grab at things and dance about a little. Imagine being a dog who is not armed with the same frame of reference, trying to decipher what is actionable in all of that commotion. For best results, less is more.
Thanks to the primate filter, human beings by default tend to constantly talk to their dogs and repeat themselves over and over again, usually getting louder and louder in an effort to get their dog to understand a cue word. One of the reasons why clicker training is so fascinating is that you can show people how to get dogs to repeat a behavior without ever using a word. Ah, the silence… (but for the occasional click.) As training progresses, of course we learn how to associate a cue word with a behavior but not until the behavior is fairly predictable, say, 8 out of 10 trials’ worth.
Remaining quiet and still is especially important with a reactive dog. Dogs that explode, bark and lunge at other dogs won’t be helped by an owner frantically repeating, “Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy Sit, Sit, Sit” or my current favorite meaningless popular chant, “Leave It! Leave It! Leave It!” A dog who has not been formally taught the “Leave it” cue will have no idea what their owner wants from them; they might as well shout, “Potato!” as it will have the same effect. When classically conditioning a reactive dog to understand that other dogs make good things happen, it works best to silently and calmly pair the sight of another dog with a high value treat, not more commotion and meaningless human chatter.
When teaching a new behavior try pairing the verbal cue, e.g. “Down” when the dog is directly in the act of laying down, via a lure or similar prompt. Get into the habit of only saying it once and only once during the behavior, not up front in the beginning. Then when the dog understands the verbal cue after numerous pairings of it with their own body movement, you can use it up front to elicit the behavior.
Communication is all about sending and receiving messages and both ends of the leash will benefit from a little less chatter and a lot more understanding.