A recent read highlights the notion that dogs not only pick up on nonverbal communication and facial cues from humans, but that they can recognize emotions in humans by combining information from different senses. This is something that hasn't previously been seen outside of humans.
That sort of thing isn’t so surprising to most of us who have shared life with a dog; it really does seem that in time, they pick up on our moods and such. My Gretchen was always very in-tune to what I was doing or feeling, especially as time went on. As she entered her final weeks, this became abundantly visible: it was almost as if a mirror was set in front of me if I were feeling uneasy about something that was happening, and I needed to tread with even more mindfulness so that she was not stressed.
All of that said, what we are conveying to our dogs during training – not just what we are saying and physically cueing to them – but our body language, our emotional language matters.
The latter is something that often gets lost in the mix of all that is dog training.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for formal dog training of course. It’s a boon when a human needs help on how to better communicate with their canine, and that’s what it comes down to. It’s just that it’s easy to get uber-focused on our cues, our timing and treat-delivery and other positive reinforcements. That tunnel vision can detach us somewhat from the most important part of training, which is relationship-building part.
But, back to how in-tune dogs are. They’re better at observing things than we are.
You know that quick pause and look that you get from your pooch when you shove your hand in your pocket for something because he knows that's where the treats usually are? Yes, that.
And when you grab a certain pair of shoes? The ears go up and so does the excitement level.
When I walk into the bathroom and fetch my toothbrush from its perch in the evening, that’s a signal that I’m getting ready for bed and invariably, I'll hear four paws padding down the hall to the bedroom.
Our pets are sponges for our subtleties. It's easy to see then how our cues – as unintentional as they are at times – can be confusing to dogs during our time together spent on training.
Be 'all in'
It might sound clichéd, but it's important to be fully present when actively training. One of the best bits of advice that I was given years ago when I started writing was: ‘If you’re not feeling it when you set about writing something, just stop. It'll come through in the piece if you keep trying. Just set it aside. You can come back to it later.’ The same is true when we approach a training session with our dog. If it seems like we’re feeling a little off, mentally distracted or upset, we’ll not perform at our best and neither will our four-legged friend - but more importantly they'll recognize that something is amiss, too.
That said, it's our obligation to identify when a dog is on that side of the fence.
Keep it simple, short
Simplicity is best when training. Giving one, clear cue is all that's needed when aiming to get the response that we're asking for. When it doesn't happen, it's easy to get off track and repeat the cue and try different things (often, we shift our body language right along with getting too wordy and/or changing our tone to add emphasis), but all that does is exacerbate the problem and frustrate both parties; a dog will then just take stabs in the dark and miss. Patience is best when used in abundance.
Don't muddy the waters
One of the most common things that we do to confuse our dogs is to unintentionally distract them or exhibit behavior that is incompatible with what we're asking them. Cueing to 'sit' while petting them is a good example of this. For some dogs, the act of being touched is stimulating to the point of distraction and their brain goes to "...that feels nice and I'm loving the attention and oh, hey, what's going on again??"
Simply having their undivided attention, cueing 'sit' in a direct and calm manner while making good eye contact and then timing the food reward or praise/petting after a dog follows through with a rump on the floor is enough.
Having the right training skills and tools in place is a must. But keep in mind that the most valuable tool in the process of training and communicating with your dog is the relationship that you have together and how you'll continue to build on it. With a little effort, our communication skills can be as effective and efficient as that of our four-legged friends.