Do I have to be psychic?
Animal training is animal communication. I have known gifted psychic animal communicators; I’ve even experienced it myself. If that is one of your skills and you use it with your animals, rock on! But, even if being psychic just isn’t for you, if you want to train your dog, wrap your head around this concept: Animal training is animal communication; you communicate what you want your animal to do. And, your animal will talk back.
How can I talk to my dog?
Dogs do communicate, subtly through body posture and facial expressions, and vocalizations. Some of a dog’s repertoire is obvious; we all know a growl or snarl is a threat, but a dog’s bark can be warning or welcoming. If you have spent any time with animals at all, you know that they have emotional states as well as behavioral awareness, which they communicate with each other and, you! You need to understand what your dog is telling you. Your dog is supremely sensitive to your moods, postures and actions; whether you notice it or not, your dog watches you and knows your every action. Time now for you to learn your dog!
Spend some time just observing your dog, or a pack. Try to do it without them being aware of your attention. Watch heads, ears, and tails; are they perked high or held low? Where are her eyes focused, is her expression strong, confident, or wary and tense? Is there a ridge of fur standing up along his spine, or is his coat slick, and flat with skin tight and twitching? What do you think it means? Next, watch your dog when you’re interacting with her, her facial expressions and postures. Learn to recognize when your dog is paying attention to you, or focused on other things.
Did you know dogs yawn and lick their lips to relieve stress? These behaviors are both an indicator the dog is experiencing stress, and a method of relieving that stress. Dogs will also yawn and lick to help other dogs relax. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Try it. Watch next time your dog is yawning, (and she’s not about to drift off to sleep) you may notice she’s also exhibiting signs of stress, such as: tight, worried expression, wrinkled brow, holds herself tensely, glancing side-to-side to avoid direct eye contact. Try yawning back and licking your lips, casually glance at your dog, look away and continue to yawn and lick. I’ll bet your dog relaxes. See if you can spot this behavior at a dog park or in your own pack.
What’s that got to do with training?
“I just want my dog to do what I say.” Sure, heard that one a time or two. How are you going to tell your dog what you want? You are the one who has to establish the vocabulary, and make sure your dog understands it.
Imagine you’ve just started a new job, one with a lot of tasks, from simple to complex, that you’ve never heard of before. You are a complete newbie at this. You have a hard time understanding your new boss, who’s teaching you the job, because he uses lots of new terms, he hasn’t really defined these terms and he doesn’t apply them consistently. Plus, he seems to change his mind daily on just how he wants you to do your new job. One day, it’s okay if you’re a few minutes late, the next he chews your ass off. Who’s had that boss?
To train your dog, he has to understand what you are asking of him. As the trainer, you need to be the one to establish clearly how you are going to communicate. You will need to be able to read and interpret your dog’s behavior, so that you can shape your dog’s behavior. If you do not clearly communicate your wishes to your dog, or have a grasp on your dog’s natural behaviors you will be like the boss in my example above. You don’t want to be that guy.
Training an animal means you are modifying its behavior, sometimes contrary to the animal’s natural behavior or instincts; for the animal to do this on your command requires a level of trust from that animal. You build that trust by establishing a system of communication that is clear and consistently applied. Once you gain that trust, you know it. Everyone who’s trained a dog, a horse, a bird, a goat, or any creature has felt that bond, that gestalt, of being in sync with your animal and perfectly understanding each other. It’s really spectacular. But it takes time and patience to build.
How have you established communication with your pet? Does your dog understand you? Do you understand your dog? What does she tell you? What has he taught you?
To train an animal requires fine timing, a clear communication system and, consistency. We’ll talk about being consistent in your training next time.