Clear Communication in Dog Training

Posted on June 26th, 2018 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification, Positive Dog Training

Photo by Matt Aunger on Unsplash

The word communication frequently pops up in the dog training world. Often it denotes animal communication, speaking with dogs on a psychic level. While I know nothing about that particular approach to interacting with canines, the process of dog training is all about clearly communicating with dogs in a temporal way.

In this post, let’s discuss three ways to communicate your training goals, intentions and boundaries with a dog.

Rule #1: Communication via Exactness

This past weekend, my wife and I had the pleasure of spending time in the mountains with some clients.  They took us rafting and flyfishing in exchange for helping them with their dog, Lucy. (Thanks, Zach and Andra. We had a great time.)

We did some training aimed at preventing Lucy from running towards their vehicle when it approached or left their house. In order accomplish this, we needed to answer the question: “What DO we want Lucy to do INSTEAD of running towards the car?” After floating some ideas, we came up with an answer: rewarding Lucy for laying on their small front porch when their truck arrived or left.

By communicating to Lucy EXACTLY WHERE we want her to go, and EXACTLY WHAT we want her to do there, we leave nothing open to variableness. Expectations are clear and progress should happen quickly.

Rule #2: Communication via Intrinsically Successful Training Scenarios

Zach also hopes to waterfowl hunt with Lucy, so building a retrieve is important. Lucy enthusiastically chases a ball, and she usually grabs it. And when she does grab it, she typically runs back to Zach. And when she does run back, she sometimes puts the ball into Zach’s hand instead of dropping it on the ground. Said another way, she sometimes won’t come directly back to Zach, and she often spits the ball out.

So, Lucy more or less has the right ingredients to be a good retriever. However, we need to stitch everything together into a reliable pattern. To do this, we can communicate our desired pattern of behavior to Lucy via an intrinsically successful training scenario. Put another way, a training scenario she likely will succeed at. Here’s how that works:

  1. Zach will only throw the ball short distances for Lucy. Running long distances for the ball exposes Lucy to more potential distractors.
  2. Once she grabs it, Zach turns away from her and starts jogging away. Lucy, seeing Zach jog away is very likely to start chasing him. Additionally, she is more likely to run straight back (and all the way back) to Zach.
  3. Once Zach senses that Lucy is about to catch up with him, he stops, spins and gets his hand on the the ball before Lucy spits it out.
  4. To reward Lucy for getting the ball back to Zach’s hand, he can toss another ball for her.
  5. Zach only performs this sequence a few times per training session. Lucy is a young and smart dog, and she gets bored fast. If Zach can just succeed at capturing a few successes each day, he can communicate to her the rules of the game. As Lucy’s understanding of the game increases, so will her motivation to play it.

A complete blog post on this method is here.

Rule #3: Communication via Management

There are few things Lucy loves more than riding in the truck with Zach. However, she distracts him and poses some dangers when left to her own devices. She will bark at passing vehicles, whine incessantly and lunge within the car.

Zach and Andrea had already purchased a seat-belt harness for Lucy, which prevents her from jumping from seat to seat. But it did not stop her from constantly lunging this direction and that. And it did not fix the barking and mental angst Lucy obviously feels in the vehicle.

How do we communicate to Lucy that we want her to be calm and still in the car? We could counter-condition her to passing vehicles and reward her for staying in the same seat. However, this is neither practical or safe for Zach to attempt while driving the car. So, we needed an alternative and safer way for Zach to work with Lucy. We decided that the process needed to start with tighter management.

We decided we needed a management technique that: 1) completely eliminated Lucy’s frantic behavior; 2) shielded her from seeing passing cars — which obviously cause her great angst; and 3) allowed Zach to work with her without driving his car over a cliff into the river.

Zach and I devised a harnessing scenario that accomplished all three goals. By rigging the seatbelt harness so that Lucy could only lay down comfortably in the back seat, she quickly moved into a state of calm. Admittedly, at first Lucy was a little concerned about her mobility being limited so much. But after a few barks and whines (during which we pet her and assured her), she soon was sleeping peacefully in the back seat while we drove the curvy mountain road near Zach’s house.

While the reward in this scenario is subtle, it is there. Lucy’s angst, I am convinced, is not fun for her. While she loves riding with Zach in the truck, she fundamentally stresses out once inside of it. By having her lay down, she no longer sees out the windows, and she quickly relaxes.

As for communication, this too is subtle. It comes via setting boundaries that create an acceptable behavior and prevent the unwanted ones. Zach is communicating to Lucy (through management) a new way of being in the car – a way that is safe, calming and enjoyable. Plus, she gets to be with Zach, which is what she wants most of all.

Once Zach logs some time with her laying peacefully in the vehicle, we hope that her general angst will disolve enough that we can give her “a little more leash,” and allow her to sit or lay down calmly in the back seat. We may need to counter-condition her to passing cars at that stage of the game, but first we want to help her fundamentally enjoy the experience of riding in the car without the high stress level.

In Summary

Training a dog largely is about communication — explaining to the dog what you want it to do and making that desired behavior rewarding. Communication happens when we sets boundaries, positively entices the dog into desired patterns of behavior and reward the dog for exhibiting our target behaviors.

If you would like to solve your dog’s behavior problems contact us. We’d love to help.