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K9 Buddy Curriculum: Communicating With Your K9 Buddy

Basic Communication
How do we communicate with a dog? It requires focus on what you are saying to the dog and what the dog is telling you. Dogs are very observant and quickly learn what they can expect from you. Do not assume that words are the most important bridge to communication. Dogs pick up on non-verbal cues that you might not even be conscious of, and in turn, you must be aware of signals that your dog projects. Though learning this inter-species language may be new to you, you will appreciate the satisfaction of communication that is based on clear and consistent interactions.

Communication tools we use are:

  • Voice - both words and tone.
  • Body positions and movements.
  • Reinforcement – food rewards and praise.
  • Leash gestures – directional indication with slack leash (no collar contact)
  • Collar cues – directional indication using low-key collar engagement (not corrective)

Consistency is crucial in communicating clearly with a dog. Dogs do not understand inconsistent rules or expectations. After experiencing initial confusion or frustration, dogs can actually become indifferent or anxious towards someone handling them inconsistently. For instance, allowing a dog to jump up on you when you have on old clothes means to the dog that it is always okay to jump up on you.... even when you are in your best clothes. Dogs do not understand that a certain behavior is okay only “some of the time”. A random reprimand would not be fair, and unreliable signals from you may result in your dog “tuning you out”.

Understanding the Power of Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a scientific term. Basically it states that a behavior followed by a pleasurable consequence is likely to increase in frequency. If I find change in the coin return of a soda machine, I’ll likely look in the coin return of the next soda machines I come across hoping for more quarters.

There are two types of positive reinforcers, primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are typically consequences that satisfy basic biological needs. Food, sex, warmth, and sleep can each act as reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are extremely powerful tools in shaping behavior. The primary reinforcer we most commonly use is food.

Secondary reinforcers are consequences that must be strongly linked to primary reinforcers to be effective. In other words, a secondary reinforcer is heavily dependent on its association with, and expectation of, future primary reinforcement. Secondary reinforcers are not intrinsically satisfying by themselves, but have come to symbolize and promise a more valuable reward to come. Money is a secondary reinforcer for us. The sight of a favorite toy, a friendly pat on the shoulder, the sound of a clicker– these are all learned secondary reinforcers for our dogs.

The key to secondary reinforcers is that they must be learned. One should not assume that a dog will automatically associate praise with pleasure. Initially, constant pairing of primary reinforcement (food) with secondary reinforcement (verbal or physical praise) will build up a pleasurable response to the praise. Food reward will pave the way for the dog’s willingness to bond in the relationship. As the relationship progresses, praise can be pleasurable on its own without requiring constant accompaniment of food.

The relationship between the handler and the dog is an important element in determining whether a consequence is actually reinforcing. Think of the warm embrace from a spouse after he/she discovers you have emptied the dishwasher. How about if a co-worker took you into their arms when you empty the dishwasher in the employee lunchroom? The hug would reinforce your behavior in the first scene, perhaps not so much in the second. Observing how your dog is actually reacting to physical contact and/or verbal input should inform your choices of interaction as you get to know your dog.

A good handler can convey real pleasure to a dog through appropriate food reward and meaningful praise, motivating their dog to want to please. Just as you expect to be acknowledged for your accomplishments, so does your dog.

Setting Limits
Without fair parameters, your dog will find itself at odds with you, with others, or with the environment. Dogs do not understand being chastised or punished. Scolding and chiding with “Bad Dog” or using the name itself in a corrective tone (“Juuuuno!”) is not effective in communicating what the dog did wrong, it only indicates that the handler is upset over something. On the other hand, ignoring an inappropriate behavior in the hopes that it will go away on its own is a faulty strategy. Your dog needs you to set rules.

We use positive reinforcement with food rewards and physical/verbal praise to let the dog know when they are correct. We can use our voice (“No” spoken in a brief, firm tone) or the withholding of reinforcement (time-outs) to let the dog when they are incorrect.

Effective handling immediately stops incorrect behavior. The handler then has an opening to request another behavior in exchange for the unwanted one. When used, the spoken word “no” is quick and must be respected by the dog to be effective. Time - outs are neutral and interrupt all progress. However you choose to handle your dog’s mistake, these episodes end with the dog refocused and getting positive feedback (praise and/or food reward) for the correct behavior.

Verbal Cues
Verbal cues request a specific response to be performed.

Obedience cues help manage your dog’s behavior and positioning. Obedience cues are also used to regain your dog’s attention, a reminder that you are the leader of this new “partnership.” In some situations, handlers may choose to briefly touch the back of their dog’s neck before issuing a verbal cue. This gentle touch demonstrates that you are thinking of the dog and may inform you where their head is and what the dog may be thinking. Your touch also alerts your dog that you might be asking them to do something. When you are certain that your dog is receptive, you can deliver your next obedience cue. Speak calmly, yet confidently to let your dog know you are confident in yourself; “Juno, Sit.”

Avoid Repeating Yourself
Stay away from unnecessarily repeating commands to your dog. Repeating the dog’s name and verbal cues over and over will result in the dog ignoring you. Give one clearly stated verbal cue to your dog. Say the dog’s name (only one time) before the cue. Respond appropriately to your dog’s action, or inaction.

Good timing is very important. As soon as you realize your dog has responded well, reinforce that response with praise (and food reward, if appropriate). The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that an intervening behavior might accidentally be reinforced. The same is true for lack of proper response. Give the dog time to respond to the verbal cue, and as soon as you realize the dog is not responding as they should, choose a handling technique to gain the appropriate response (a collar cue or time-out may be appropriate). Remember to reward once the dog responds correctly.

The Verbal Cue “Sit”
Another way to communicate with your dog is to “read” their body language to gauge what they may be thinking. You can do this by having your dog sit at your left side. Touch the back of your dog’s neck. Is your dog’s gaze forward or swiveling their neck to watch some action behind them? Are the ears soft or are they upright in excitement? A “sit” can be used anytime you question your dog’s attention.

Communicating effectively with your dog requires that YOU (the human) be attentive to the dog and your own actions. More often than not, dogs do exactly what we tell them to do. We as handlers need to focus on what we are communicating to ensure we receive the responses and behaviors that we want.

Good communication is essential for trust to build within a team. And it takes time. Yet, if your dog knows what is expected and you consistently acknowledge behavior with fair input, your dog will more quickly learn to trust you as leader. Equally, if you are committed to being clear in your messages, then your dog will have the information they need to respond with good decisions.

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