Communication In Gundog Training – “You Said What?”

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Communication is nearly never mentioned in discussions of dog training. Communication, however, is the most important piece of the puzzle. How do you tell the dog what you want him to do?  A quite typical approach is to speak English to the dog and see if he will respond. This does not work. A look at how dogs communicate will furnish a better model.

The dog communicates almost exclusively with his eyes and body language. To take in information from another dog he reads body posture, body motion, direction of motion, eye movements, tail movements, ear movements, etc. When a dog gives information to another dog, he does it with the same mechanisms. He moves, changes his posture, repositions his ears, looks in the direction he is going to go, etc. A prime example is that of a person taking a group of 6 or 8 dogs on a hike. During the hike the dogs will engage in lots of group activities, play, hunting etc. There will be loads of communication going on between the dogs. Not a sound will be heard other than the rattle of leaves and bushes stirred by busy paws.

A great example of the dog communicating with man is the dog that knows when you get ready to go hunting. That dog reacts well before you get your gun or gear. The human thinks the dog is reading his mind. The dog is actually reading the owners eyes. The owner looks toward the gun cabinet, or he looks toward the closet where is hunting coat hangs. The owner frequently doesn’t notice the dog looking at him because the dog has much better peripheral vision than does man, and the dog has much greater scope of peripheral vision. Humans have a field of view of about 180 degrees while dogs with their slightly offset eyes can see about 270 degrees. The dog is looking at the man much more frequently than the man is aware of.

Compared to the dog, man’s interspecies communications skills frequently leave something to be desired. The human frequently stands still, which gives the dog nothing to read. Then the human starts making vocal noises. Words give the dog no useful information except when they are yelled angrily. In that case, the dog receives the information that says it would be wise to stay away from this angry threatening person.

So how does the trainer communicate with the dog? The trainer keeps his mouth shut, keeps his body moving, and keeps his hands off the dog. One of the most valuable communication tools that I have found is a piece of duct tape. Place it across your mouth and your training will improve tremendously. That is probably a little extreme, but it does illustrate the importance of keeping your voice out of the training process sufficiently to minimize interference. The main result of silence is that it influences the human to reach into his ancestral suite of behaviors and offer some non-verbal communication. We humans were around thousands of years prior to the point in history when speech emerged. We have buried in our brain stem those ancient talents and proclivities. When the trainer keeps his mouth shut, our innate talents have an opportunity to operate.

One of the most misunderstood communications is that of getting the dog to come to you. The human frequently stands still and yells at the dog, “Here!…HERE!!!….HERE!!!!!……
If you want the dog to come to you, simply walk away from him and keep walking until he catches up.One of the first lessons I let my new trainers learn is that “walk away from the dog” means keep walking until the dog catches up. It does not mean walk 10 ft and stop, or walk 20 feet and stop. If you continue walking away and be quiet, in a few seconds the dog looks around and sees that you are gone. He doesn’t know where you are, because you are being silent. Therefore because he doesn’t want to stay there by himself, he comes to find you. Initially the distance may be 10 feet or it may be 50 yards. The dog determines what the distance is; not the trainer. The first lesson or two, you might have to walk 30 or 40 yards before the dog “finds” you. By the third or fourth lesson you will be walking maybe 3 or 4 steps before the dog “finds” you.

One of the most effective dog training strategies is to use the voice very sparingly, and usually at a low volume. If you watch a few dog trainers you will note that the good ones use very little noise. That is not to say that the voice doesn’t have a role in dog training. Voice is useful in training. It serves well as a marker for desired behaviors. “Good” in an upbeat tone can tell the dog that he is doing it right. “No” in a harsh tone can tell him he is doing it wrong. The vocal marker “good” is merely a sound, and will only have value if followed frequently by a reward. Two typical high value rewards are treats and retrieves. Petting and praise are typically medium to low value rewards depending upon how indiscriminately they are bestowed during pup’s average day. Reward, if properly used, is the most powerful communication channel with a dog. When the dog does what you want, reward him immediately for the behavior, or mark it with a sound when the payment will be slightly delayed. That is the essence of communicating with animals.

Robert Milner

“When he stood up to speak, battalions of words issued forth from his mouth and scoured the countryside in search of an idea, and when they found one, they swiftly and thoroughly beat it to death.” —- -Anonymous

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