Training Fundamentals: Communication

In the first article in this series I introduced three fundamental elements of dog training: communication; engagement; and motivation. Lets take a closer look at communication.

Peter Drucker, the late American business management consultant, said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” This is even more true when dealing with dogs.

Effective communication with your dog should be based on a clear and consistent system of verbal and non-verbal signals. While we rely heavily on our verbal communication skills, dogs are much more focused on non-verbal signals. As a result, when introducing a new behaviour it makes sense to add a physical cue first. A verbal cue can be added later.

Similarly, when marker training a handler may start with a clicker as the auditory stimulus to mark the desired behaviour. A verbal cue, such as “Yes”, can be layered over the clicker. The clicker and verbal cue can then be used together or the clicker can be faded out.

 While the words themselves don’t matter to the dog, I find it useful to use common words so I know what I’m communicating. Tone matters. I use a conversational or animated tone depending on the response I’m after (how you say it is more important than what you say).

I use marker training to establish a positive association between a behaviour and a consequence. With marker training (or any other training methodology), it helps to be able to communicate the following messages:

  • when you are training (“Ready”)
  • what you want the dog to do (Physical and/or verbal cue)
  • when the dog does what you want (“Click” and/or “Yes”)
  • when you want the dog to keep doing what they’re doing (“Good”)
  • when the dog doesn’t do what you want (No reward and/or “No”)
  • when the training is over (“All done”)

An animated “Ready” or “Are you ready?” is a signal that a training session is about to begin, and it’s time for the dog to engage with the handler. Verbal cues or commands for specific behaviours are generally delivered in an even tone. The “Click” or an enthusiastic “Yes” is a bridge between the marker and the reward, and releases the dog from the exercise. I use a calm “Good” as a duration marker to extend a desired behaviour. Some folks use a neutral “No” as a negative marker, but not as a correction. And an “All done” ends the training session (often accompanied by the universal empty palms signal – the reward has gone away).

The discussion about the importance of non-verbal communication is often focused on human body language and the classic obedience hand signals. However, the value of routine and ritual cannot be underestimated. In addition to being great interpreters of human body language, dogs understand context.

SAR Dog Keji is normally very quiet in my vehicle. To the point where I occasionally do a shoulder check to make sure he’s still in his crate behind my seat. But things change when we arrive at a training location or an actual search. The dog knows what’s coming. He is pumped!

There is whining, and spinning, and barking. There is excitement and anticipation. There is communication.

But I still go through the ritual. Here’s our tracking routine: I put on my tracking gloves; I put the tracking harness over the dog’s head; He impatiently puts his front leg through the harness; he starts to bark; I clip the tracking line on the harness; there is silence; he jumps out; and he hits the ground on a mission. I still use a verbal cue for him to start tracking, but I know he doesn’t need it and probably doesn’t even hear it. But its part of the ritual. Part of my job. I am pumped!

More on engagement in the next article in this series.