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Canine Communication

Sometimes, it can seem like your dog has some kind of direct channel into your brain or your heart. That they have some, sixth sense, about how you are feeling or what you want or need.


Many dog owners have told me stories, in awed tones, of their dogs almost supernatural abilities to know what they want or need. While it's not magic, dogs do have super powers of perception that go beyond what we are normally consciously aware of.


Let's review these, so that we can have a better understanding of how to communicate with our dogs and understand how what we do affects them.


Scent

It probably goes without saying, but your dog's nose is far better than any humans. Well, that's not entirely true, we have some of the same hardware, but the difference is really in the brain. Dog's brains are just wired for the sense of smell in a way that our never can be.


In training, when a dog is food motivated, we use scent in association with food. Meal time can become training time because a hungry dog in proximity to food will be more motivated and engaged. Our approach is, You want this? Great! If you do what I want, you get what you want!


Scent is also important when meeting new people, new dogs and going new places. I don't know why, but it seems that whenever I'm out with a dog, some stranger just feels the need to shove their hands in the dog's face. Sorry, but a dog can smell you quite well from where you are! If you have a dog that has anxiety, fear or nervousness at new encounters with people, keep the dog feeling safe by guarding his/her space and letting the human know that the dog can smell them just fine. No hands needed.


Body Language

Dogs are hyper aware of every little bit of our body language, and this is one of the primary ways that we have communicated with them over the last 20-40 thousand years they evolved with us. They've had a lot of time to get dialed into our every move. This is why their powers of observation seem to be almost mystical. They watch the positioning of our body, our posture, how relaxed or tense we are, facial expressions and more. This is an entire language to a dog. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are always communicating through our body language, and to a dog we are speaking volumes. Our emotional state is often reflected in body language and tone of voice and dogs will pick up on that and internalize it, mirroring our internal state within themselves. This is why dogs are often a reflection of their owners or their home environment. If there is a lot of stress and anxiety in a home, the dog is much more likely to have issues with stress and anxiety. This is particularly true of German dogs, German Shepherds in particular.


One area of body language that dogs are usually hyper aware of is something called spatial pressure.

This is the proximity and movement of people or things applied to the space around a dog up to and beyond the threshold with which they feel comfortable. Leaning into or over a dog creates spatial pressure and makes them uncomfortable, just like an American travelling on a subway in Tokyo would feel uncomfortable. "Hey! You're in my space!" I've had dogs that would refuse to swing into a heel on my left side because my shoulder was dropped an inch too low, or I was leaning forward a couple inches too much. Yes, they can be that sensitive to spatial pressure.


When training, we encourage engagement by teaching the dog to look at us and pay attention to what we are doing. Proper canine leadership also requires that we keep our bodies relaxed, our emotions calm and that we stand up straight so that we project confidence and control.


If you are trying to teach recall, i.e. the "here" command, moving towards a dog will likely apply pressure and make them run away from you, while moving away from a dog will remove the pressure, engage their prey/chase drive and draw them into you. Kneeling down and being positioned to the side is passive and more welcoming to a dog as it removes more spatial pressure. This is especially helpful for timid and nervous dogs.


Tone of Voice

Have you ever had someone tell you that "How you say something is more important than what you say?" This is doubly true for a dog as it conveys a lot of meaning and nuance, including about our emotional state. At the most basic level, a high pitched tone conveys approval, happiness and excitement, while a low pitched tone conveys disapproval, unhappiness and anger. Have you ever heard a dog growl in a high pitched tone? Of course not, a growl is always in a low pitched town, while excited yips and play barks are in a high pitched tone.


In training, we use the tone of voice to convey approval or disapproval. Most of the time, we are using a voice prompt, i.e. command, in a happy, high pitched tone of voice with the voice rising in tone at the end of the word. This is the same technique that we use to designate something as a question in english. As we get to the end of the sentence, the last word has a higher tone to it. When we do that, the dog's get the meaning that what they have just done is good, while they build recognition for the pattern of sounds we are using to mark that activity. We never mark a prompt with a low tone of voice, that just creates stress and tension. Also, if you want your dog to know and like their name, never use it when scolding them. If they've done something bad and you are unhappy about it, don't use their name. "Bad Dog" is better than "Bad Mabel!" If you do, they'll be looking to make a getaway any time you use their name!


Touch

Can be the most powerful communicator, one that overrides many of the others. Positive touch, including soothing touches and petting can be used as a reward, while negative touch, which includes leash tugs, poking, slapping, leaning, biting and mouthing, adds pressure and can assertiveness and result in stress.


Too much positive touch can work against you if you are trying to reward your dog for good behavior. You can create so much excitement that it results in a huge distraction which destroys the connection that you are trying to make between a good behavior and a reward. When I'm training a dog, I'll use a nice tone of voice in addition to a slight, and brief, touch to a dog's shoulder or side of the face. Usually for an excitable dog I'll touch an area that has less muscle and more bone - like the side of the face - to keep the level of excitement low. For a calm dog, I will usually touch the shoulder as it has more muscle and the effect of the touch will convey greater excitement.


Dogs often use touch to train humans! Dogs who lean on you, put their paws on you, step on your feet, jump up on you, nip you, put their mouth on your or push you with their nose are using negative touch to communicate their desires by adding pressure to us to get us to do something they want. Usually it's for attention, play, food or to go outside. This type of communication from a dog often signals disrespect and should be ignored or corrected. A dog will rarely, if ever, use negative touch on a pack leader, so if your dog is doing it to you, chances are, you are not the leader!

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