I Do Not Understand You!

How can spring be here already? I am not ready for show season! What did I do all winter?

I did train my dog; I just did not train for obedience. I trained for play and mostly to enhance our communication skills. However, there are still times where I speak in a not so happy voice and there have been plenty of times when he has told me off.

People have debated which foreign language is the most difficult to learn, but based on a 2001 study by Nicola Rooney at the Anthrozoology Institute in Southhampton, UK, the answer is clear. The language humans have the most difficulty understanding and using is “dog.” In this research featuring 21 owner-dog pairs, the scientist videotaped the owners engaged in play with their dogs. The owners patted the floor, barked, bowed, shuffled their feet, slapped their thighs, crawled on all fours – anything to get their Fido to romp with them.

The researchers identified common actions owners used to elicit play and then tested them to see which signals actually worked. As a result, they discovered that bowing or lunging while verbally encouraging a dog usually elicits play. Tickling/quick pats and stamping feet got virtually no response. Patting the floor and clapping were less than 50 percent successful.

The researchers found that although some actions tended to instill silent stares and others instigated play, the frequency with which the owners used the signals was unrelated to their success. That is owners tended to use unsuccessful gestures as frequently as successful ones. This means that we are oblivious to whether our dog is responding to us and whether our actions create the appropriate response. Instead, we babble or gesture blindly, and occasionally use the correct language.

According to Sophia Yin, DVM, you need to pay attention to both your actions and your dog’s responses. She says in order to be successful at training and changing behavior, you must: have good timing, be clear and consistent with your expectations and signals, and provide the correct rate of reinforcement.

Yin explains that dogs are not blank slates, as researchers once thought. That is, they cannot all learn the same tasks equally well, and even when trained in exactly the same manner, they may not learn exactly the same thing. These differences in learning are due in part to differences in past experience and motivation level at the time.

Managing your dog’s every task is one that some people cannot help but attempt. They are constantly telling their dog what behavior to perform. You have seen it, people telling their dog to sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.

Good training starts with a reason to learn. Most dogs’ motivators are a combination of food, praise, petting and play. Here is an exercise to try. To see whether praise or petting works well as a reward while your dog is in training, praise him exuberantly. See whether he wags his tail or ignores you. If he wags his tail and looks at you the entire time you are praising or petting him, then praise or petting is an effective reward. If he acts like you are not there, then these potential motivators – at least under these conditions – are not a worthwhile communication tool.

One of the obedience tasks I need to train my dog is go outs. Well, this was not fun for me or my dog, so I added the retrieve. (Now my brag) This week, he went into another room and retrieved my slippers and brought them to me one at a time.  So while I did little formal obedience training this winter, my dog and I have increased our communication skills. Can I transfer these skills to ring work? We will find out the end of this month.

In what ways do you and your dog communicate? Let me know, I might need to copy your ideas.

“A dog can’t think that much about what he’s doing, he just does what feels right.”
Barbara Kingsolver (author, Animal Dreams: A Novel)

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