One factor that is so important when it comes to our lives with dogs is clearness of communication. Communication is not just about what someone is saying. For effective communication to take place, the message to be communicated must be understood clearly by the one receiving it so they can act or respond (or not) as necessary. For true communication, the receiver must also be understood in their responses.
It may be easy to think when your dog has been successfully coached in some cues that they understand what the cues mean. That isn’t quite true.
While dogs do appear to understand cues, they aren’t actually understanding the meaning of the word. To them it’s simply a specific noise. Because of the way that learning works, repetition during coaching means that they have come to associate that noise with something. “When I hear that sound and do this thing, I get the tasty treat.” So, hearing the cue word, for example ‘down’ prompts the dog to lie down and then they receive the little piece of sausage or liver or dog treat.
This doesn’t mean that the dog knows the word ‘down’ means ‘lay down’ – it’s an action they have come to associate with getting something good. It has been positively reinforced, and so they are likely to do it again on hearing that cue. This is why clearness and consistency in how we communicate with our dogs is so important.
How then can we ensure consistent and clear communication and, importantly, make sure that it applies in both directions?
Make cues short, simple, and easy to keep the same every time you say it. While to us ‘down’, ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down’ all mean the same thing, to the dog who has learned the cue of ‘down’ they are very different sounds. Be sure to make sure everyone in the family or who will be interacting with the dog and giving them cues knows what their cues are and the importance of using the right cues.
Remember the rule of three when it comes to cues, to avoid weakening them. Say the cue and give the dog three seconds to respond. If they don’t then say the cue again. Wait another three second before saying the cue for a final time. If after another three seconds the dog has not responded it’s time to stop and look at the situation you are in and see what can be changed to set the dog up for success.
Are there too many distractions in the environment? For example, calling a dog away from wanting to play with other dogs can be difficult for many, as coming back to go on the lead is nowhere near as much fun as playing with other dogs. In this situation a long line is useful to avoid the dog practising the behaviour of running up to other dogs as many dogs may not be keen on interacting with unknown dogs.
Has the cue been ‘proofed’ – has the dog been coached so that the cue means the same thing in every environment? Once we have coached a cue at home, it’s really important to gradually increase the distraction levels around the dog and go to different places to coach that cue, as otherwise the dog will not realise that ‘down’ means the same thing whether or not he’s at home, in the park, in the woods etc.
Is the cue consistent? This ties in with the rule of three mentioned above. Often, when a cue is given but the dog doesn’t immediately act, the guardian repeats the cue quickly. If this keeps happening, that nice and simple ‘down’ cue could get confusing to the dog and turn into ‘downdowndownliedown’ – an extreme example, but you get the idea!
One thing every guardian can do to help communication between themselves and their dogs is to spend some time learning about canine body language. This is the main way dogs communicate, and the more we can understand what they are telling us, the better we can react to their signals and change anything in the environment that they are struggling with or understand when they are confused by something. Excellent resources include the Silent Conversations website, the book Canine Communication: The Language of a Species by Sally Gutteridge* or (especially good for families with children) Lili Chin’s Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend*
Dogs live in a very human world, and they do their best to get by and work with us when they understand a completely different language. It’s only fair that we do our best to learn theirs, and to keep our own communication with them clear and consistent.
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