Just like people dogs have varied and unique interests, talents, needs, and drives, with a strong capacity to communicate with us, and with each other. The traditional focus on "commanding" dogs creates barriers to communication, at the same time failing to support each dog's individuality and unique spirit. By seeking instead to foster deeper and richer communication with our dogs, through a combination of positive reinforcement strategies and relationship building, we are better able to meet their needs, support their interests, develop their talents, at the same time promoting positive behavior.
Verbal and non-verbal human cues are a key component of communication with dogs. Through repetition, consistency, and experiences dogs learn to respond to our cues. Treats, praise, and toys are effective positive reinforcement rewards to use when teaching cues, especially in the initial learning stages. Once dogs have learned a cue however, communicating praise, appreciation, and love, both verbally and non-verbally most often can replace the need for a food or toy reward.
For example, we may ask a group of dogs to wait before jumping out of the car each day. With repetition and consistency dogs will learn the cue. With experience their innate intelligence, empathy, and intuition allow them to understand that “wait” fosters safety and order. Dogs learn to stay with you during outings, even in more chaotic environments such as dog parks and fields. It is not merely verbal cues and experience that encourage them to stay with you, but more importantly the positive bond and connection you share. All of these positive interactions are possible with the fostering of solid communication.
Listening to our dogs
We can only develop solid communication with dogs when listening becomes mutual and reciprocal. If we expect our dogs to “listen” to us we must consistently and wholeheartedly "listen" to them.
We express ourselves to dogs though words (such as sit, stay, wait, hello, let’s go, with me, good job…), actions (eye-contact, physical cues, our movement, play, smiles, affection…), and our energy.
Dogs express themselves to us and to each other through their actions, body language and energy. They let us know when they need to exercise or rest, play or sit in the shade, drink water or share some love. They let us know when they like another person or dog, and when they don’t. When we “listen” to our dogs by deeply observing what they may be expressing through their actions, body language, and energy, our bonds and communication become richer and stronger.
For example, you have a dog who always loves playing with friends in the dog park. One day they urgently paw at the gate while making eye contact with you. It is clear that their behavior is a form of communication. For some reason in that moment they urgently want to leave the park. Listening in that moment involves observing, analyzing and responding with love. You decide to trust their instincts and listen to their request to leave the park. You return to the dog park the next day and end up having an awesome afternoon of play.
Dogs are more likely to listen to us when we steadfastly listen to them. This is because they know when we understand and meet their needs, they know when we celebrate their uniqueness, they know when communication is mutual and reciprocal. In addition, when we listen to dogs we will undoubtedly tap into their intelligences and talents. Dogs, for example, are able to sense and pick up on things that we don't. Our charge is to listen to them, to learn from them, and to try our best to understand.
Building a Foundation of Love
At the center of all solid communication is love. True love can only be fostered when we fully and wholeheartedly embrace another for who they are. The more traditional "command and obey" approach often aims to create a "perfect" dog. Just as we wouldn’t expect a person to be "perfect", we also shouldn’t expect a dog to be "perfect". There is no room for perfectionism or command in a loving relationship. Although we may use rewards and strategies to promote positive behaviors, in the end the love and bonds that grew through solid communication will be most important, meaningful, and effective.
Many dog experts have rejected the traditional "command and obey" approach to working with dogs, choosing to focus instead on using verbal and non-verbal cues, interactive communication and teaching dogs to make good choices. Some of my personal favorites are Tamar Geller, https://theloveddog.com/, "a life coach for dogs and their people," and Victoria Stillwell, https://positively.com/.
Also, check out Victoria Stillwell's fantastic online article "Why I don't use commands in dog training."
(Photo 1: Rose, Betty, and Janet, Photo 2: Socrates, Bodie, Betty, Rose, and Robyn (Cooper and Willow behind), Photo 3: Jaime, Jackson, and Janet, Photo 4: Bodie and Cooper, Photo 5: Willow and Betty, Photo 6: Rose and Daisy, Photo 7: Janet, Bodie, Socrates, Betty and Rose running)
Blog by Robyn/Photos by Janet and Robyn