Recent findings show that dogs and people have been living together for up to 30,000 years. This information suggests that communication between people and dogs should be fairly natural and simple. My experience is that this is the case. What seems to be getting in the way of this easy and direct communication, is people’s disconnection from themselves, as animals.
Our technological achievements are impressive, indeed! Our brains continue to evolve and develop, and the environment we have created is a reflection of this.
However, I’ve noticed our “headiness” gets in the way of our ability to communicate with our pets. Most of what I do, in addition to training dogs, is teach people how to communicate with their dog, in a way that the dog understands, as a dog.
I once read in a book titled “A Dog For All Seasons” by Patti Sherlock, the author describe her experience with her first working farm dog. She had gotten a border collie puppy and she asked an old farmer how to train the dog to keep the sheep back while she pulled food down, to avoid being trampled. His reply was, “You tell him to keep the sheep back.” She did, and it worked. Why this worked, in this situation, is that she was telling her border collie to do something that he was genetically “wired” to do. If she told a shih tzu to “keep the sheep back”, the outcome probably would not have been as successful. The other part of why this worked, is by telling the dog what to do in a natural and direct way, he was able to sense what she wanted and that she had the expectation that he do it.
I recently had a private training client explain to me how she had been taught, in her puppy class, how to teach her dog “leave-it”. She explained and demonstrated a sequence of steps that involved one fist in front with a treat in it, one fist behind the back with a treat in it, and then swapping the fists all timed based off of when the dog took it’s attention away from the first fist. Then she explained the next, equally elaborate phase of training. Then she told me, “…after that, you can start to ask the dog to “leave it”.
After my head stopped spinning, I told her she didn’t need all those steps. Certainly, those steps won’t hurt anything and there is nothing wrong with training in that way, but they aren’t necessary. I got the dog in front of me, gave him a couple of pieces of delicious treat and then with a large piece, showed it to him, told him clearly, “leave-it”, and then put the treat on the ground several inches off his front paw. The puppy went to eat the treat and I tapped his shoulder and told him “No”, and then said “leave it”, preventing him from getting to the treat.
Once he took his attention off the treat on the floor, I praised him and rewarded him. If he ever went down for the treat on the floor, I just tapped his shoulder and told him “No”, reminding him that he should go for that particular treat and also showing him that I would follow through with my expectation of him.
After doing this twice, I could then tell him “Leave It”, toss a treat on the ground next to him and he would sit, proudly ignoring the treat on the ground, just inches away from his front paw. His owner was amazed at how easy it was and at how capable her dog was of just simply “getting it”.
Look at it this way: If human children continued to be taught addition and subtraction through elementary school, middle school and high school, then they would never learn multiplication and division – let alone calculus, or statistics! The student’s ability to learn and progress is generally related to the teacher’s expectation of the student’s ability in the first place, assuming the teacher is adequately skilled to do the job.
Dogs are so generally underestimated in their ability to “just get it”. If we don’t have the expectation that they can, then they won’t.
This relates back to the story of the woman with her border collie and the old farmer telling her to just tell the dog what she wanted. The thing to get about the example with my client puppy and “leave it” is that the most important part of that interaction was the tap on the shoulder and my expectation that he would understand what I meant. The words didn’t matter to the dog. The dog got the communication because of what was actually happening and what I was doing – the words don’t really matter.
IMPORTANT – It is always the teacher’s responsibility for the student to understand the lesson. If the puppy I was working with didn’t “just get it”, then it would have been because of something I was or wasn’t doing that was ineffective, for that dog as an individual. Not learning is never the dog’s fault, it’s the human’s.
Dogs communicate with their bodies and with energy. When we learn how to get into our bodies and connect to ourselves physically and energetically, then communication with animals becomes “second nature”. More accurately, would it be called “first nature”.