K9 Communication Symposium

By Professor Tom Brownlee

  I have often said that as the trainer, I need to be that dog’s second favorite person in the world. This is a good news/bad news thing. The good news is that I’m the one who gets to crank that dog up and make sure and certain that it is having the time of it’s life while training. The bad news is that the onus is on the owner-handler to be the dog’s favorite person. In a perfect world, this means he/she must learn more, observe more, and understand more about communicating with that dog than I do. It is not, as we know, a perfect world and getting the handler to this level of understanding is the proverbial hard part.

  First, we must understand that dogs communicate with one another primarily with body language. For a simple lack of not knowing, they presume that we do the same. Our primary communication is verbal, and due to some species’ specific chauvinism, we presume that they should be able to catch up with us, listen and understand.

  Because of this communication gap, they are constantly trying to read and decipher our body language, and are on the whole amazingly good at it. On our part, to properly approach this, we are in the position of quite literally teaching the dog English, or in many cases, German. In any event, it is a foreign language to a dog.

  On the subject of body language, again we approach it in a chauvinistic manner. They can learn how we do things, not the other way around. Well, they do, and right on schedule- most of us are not reciprocating. You simply cannot be a good trainer or handler without noticing and understanding your dog’s body language. Their signals can be, and usually are, extremely subtle. So for that matter are ours. The dogs, I can assure you, pick up on it and we need to as well. To do this we must approach the learning process- and each training session- with an open mind. If you notice some nuance in the dog’s body language, figure it out before you go on. It may very well be an aid or a hindrance to your training later.

  The body language of most dogs is strikingly similar. Watch and notice a dog first learning scent training. They will invariably false alert, trying to buy some free toy time. When they do this, they will glance at your eyes to see if you are buying into it. When they do a positive alert, they will glance at your hands, looking for that toy.

  We tend to underestimate the intelligence and the abilities of our dogs. Many breeds, I.e. the herding breeds we work with, are capable of deductive reasoning on an elementary level, which is what enables us to train them incrementally in the first place. They learn dozens of your tiniest body signals without being taught- otherwise how would a glance at your eyes tell them anything? If they can learn all that on their own they should, and can, be easy to train more signals. Subtlety again is the key word, both in hand signals and verbal communication. Lately, while watching a K9 “competition” I was just plain appalled at the amount of shouting and wild gesticulation directed at the dogs. Exaggerated signals are a product of our minds, not theirs.

You will notice, in your schools and in your training, the older K9 teams work more fluidly and more quietly. The younger teams are more clipped in their movements, and louder in their commands. Those who have learned each other’s idiosyncrasies and body language are a real pleasure to watch, and generally more effective at their jobs. The better handlers will notice the head jerks, nose press, glances, the attitude of the ears, and interpret it all. Dogs, unlike us, employ an economy of movement and do the little things they do for a reason. If you can detect and interpret the subtle signals in your dog’s body language, it makes progressive training easier, and working a joy.

While we should be learning the body language form of communication from dogs, we need to be teaching them our form of communication- the verbal. Teaching requires a much higher level of patience than learning, but this is a concept many are apparently loathe to grasp.

  For communication on the verbal level, we have to deal with three main factors, in order of importance- inflection, volume, and vocabulary. Inflection is the “Biggie” in verbal communication with your dog. Inflection is simply the modulation and pitch given to your voice while speaking to or giving a command to the dog. With inflection the dog will key in on your mood and level of excitement. Without inflection in a plain, conversational tone of voice the dog will key in on the vocabulary used, pick out the words it is familiar with, and try to piece them together to make some sense.

With an uplifting, lilting tone of voice and a smile on our face, you can tell the dog, “today is the day we take you to the cosmetics plant for horrible animal experiments!” and the dog will be bouncing around at the front door, anxious to get going! With your face screwed into an angry snarl you can scream at the dog, “you are the BEST dog in the entire WORLD, and I wouldn’t give you up for ANYTHING!” and the dog will be cowering in the corner waiting for the other shoe to fall. It isn’t what you say- it’s how you say it. You can even raise your voice if the inflection is proper. For example, in a prey drive based training, high volume and the right inflection will excite and motivate the dog. It is the difference between yelling with the dog and yelling at it. The dog knows the difference, and so do you. Think, for instance, if you are just plain talking and interject into your sentence the words, “find the dope,” you’ll see the ears perk and maybe a tiny head twitch as the dog recognizes the word, “dope,” but not much else. The dog is awaiting confirmation and/or further instruction, if any. Do the same thing out of the blue, but in a high pitched, excited tone and say, “find the DOPE!” The effect, of course, will be like flipping a light switch. This is inflection.

  Next, in order of importance in communicating with your dog, is volume. The canine world, again, is one of predominantly subtle signals and that definitely includes verbalizations. Think about this for a moment- the only time a canine uses a high volume verbalization at close range, he uses it as a threat. In the case of us using it, it is perceived as a threat to comply, rather than a request… please don’t make me anthropomorphize.

It seems we raise our voices out of frustration, trying to get our point across. Frustration is counterproductive to any situation and just plain damaging in dog training. Frustration changes not only volume, but inflection (see above) and starts a downward spiral. We are frustrated because, (A) the dog is not “getting it,” and (B) the dog will not comply. For the answer to (A) go back to basic training 101-Dogma… God, I hate the double entendre. If the dog is not “getting it,” you are doing something wrong. Remember you are trying to teach the dog a foreign language- be patient! Drop back, figure it out, and approach from another angle or simply back up two steps to when the dog was “getting it” and pick it up there. If you are a handler and have to deal with (B) because the dog won’t comply until you have ratcheted up the volume, you need to call your trainer and verbally throttle him instead of the dog.

  High volume is very much like repetitive commands- indeed they often go hand in hand. Both actually condition the dog not to comply right away. It also relays to the dog that you are not the one in charge here, at least not until the decibel level reaches 25 or so. It is, I assure you, just as easy to train the dog at 7db as it is at 25db. The sound of your voice, per se, should be what gets the dog’s attention- not the sound of impending compulsion. In your training and handling, at the risk of cliché, you’ll kill more flies with honey, make it fun and all things good for the dog to perform.

  Yet another big negative to high volume is that it will absolutely shut down a sensitive dog. Watch any dog who has almost, but not quite, mastered a given command. As the command is frustratingly repeated at ever higher volume, the felony is compounded and the dog begins visibly shutting down. If you can catch yourself at this soon enough, stop what you are doing, lean in closer to the dog, smile and whisper the command… Voila! That alone should speak volumes, if you are willing to listen.

The bottom line on verbalizations is again subtlety. The dog is not only capable of keying in on it, but has a predilection to do so. Capitalize on this and utilize it. Low volume works!

  This all brings to mind a recent article I read by a well-ensconced K9 trainer. It seems he had an epiphany of sorts while watching the AKC National Agility Championships. He simply couldn’t believe the speed of these dogs negotiating all these obstacles with complete enthusiasm and a complete lack of any compulsion. Lo and behold, a great many of the inducive and motivational methods these agility trainers used found a place in his training of law enforcement K9’s. The point here is, of course, you can learn something from any type of training. Pull out of each discipline that which is useful to you. Remain flexible in your methodology and maintain an open mind. What worked on the last dog might not work on the next one. The name of the game is productivity and results. We are all training dogs to do things that under some circumstances they simply cannot get wrong. The better you can communicate, the better you can motivate. On the subject of motivation, if it takes me riding in on a pink donkey, wearing a clown suit to motivate that dog, well, guess what…

Perhaps last in importance in communicating verbally with your dog is vocabulary. I take great, almost perverse, pride in the vocabulary of the dogs I train. For a mobility assistance dog, this is more important than for some others. The herding breeds that many of us work with are capable of assimilating a great deal, and likewise capable of “connecting the dots” of a number of words together and grasping a complete sentence. The bottom line, however, is this- if your volume and inflection aren’t turned down, the dog is not paying attention to the words per se. Like the aforementioned prey based training, I have found you can kick things up a notch and excite the dog while maintaining understanding, if your inflection is right. My demo dog in particular likes a complete at home fire drill, with me issuing rapid fire commands in an excited tone of voice (like I would do were the house actually on fire.) However, for point of illustration, if you scream at the dog to retrieve the phone in this emergency, it could be awhile before you are dialing 911. In an urgent, excited request, the word “phone” registers and she will all but fall over herself trying to get it to me. You may literally have to describe to the dog where you left the phone if your inflection is wrong on the other words she knows, I.e. “kitchen,” then vocabulary takes a back seat and you are figuratively, but not literally, hosed.

  Learn to communicate with your dog by teaching him, patiently, how you do it. Learn how he communicates with you and respond accordingly. Remember, it is usually a great deal more subtle than we have been led to believe, whether it’s verbal or visual. As with any in-depth relationship, a K9 team of any sort functions best when lines of communication are open and the parties understand one another.