Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shut Up and Train

Every now and then I have to remind myself that before all the books and research, I still managed to train my dogs. Granted, my methods weren't always the best but one of the lessons that I learned during that time is still probably the most important to me today.

The household I grew up in was often loud and chaotic, so my favorite way to decompress was to take my dog (at that time) Duke, a fluffy rottweiler/chow mix, out for a long walk. In my neighborhood, there was a long row of warehouses, and behind those warehouses was a huge, grassy field of nothingness; the closest thing that a kid could get to "the country" without actually living there. This was my favorite place to go. In the grassy area there was a little "creek" (more like a ditch, but to me it was a creek) that ran from one end to the other. If you found a good spot to jump over the creek you could go up a small hill, through the treeline, and onto an open, paved lot. Very few people bothered to pass through that area, so it was perfect. (In hindsight, it was also probably fairly dangerous, but something about having what looked like a big fluffed up rottweiler with me made me feel pretty protected. He never bit anyone in his entire life, but they didn't know that.)

Once I arrived in the field, I'd unleash Duke and watch him go. This was our routine. (At the time, I had no idea that the steps I first took which made that off-leash routine possible were very similar to the proper approach to teaching a solid recall in the world of science-based training.) Duke would run laps, jump the creek, and have a great time. He never strayed too far and if I jumped the creek to hang out on the paved end of the lot, he would follow and do the same. If his exploring took him farther than I liked, I'd simply call him back over and he always came running. Otherwise, everything we did was in silence. A slight hand gesture would bring him to a sit or down. Another would signal a stay. That silence helped us both read each other clearly; it was so important and so calming.

Sometimes the best way to make yourself interesting
is to stop trying so hard.
In later years, I would find myself in a group dog training class that threatened to spiral out of control. The dogs were completely distracted and their owners were so flustered that it seemed there was no chance of putting everyone back on track. Verbal commands were being repeated left and right to dogs who had become so confused and disinterested that they were simply learning to tune out their owners' muddy requests. Communication had all but fallen apart.

Of course, ending a class on such a bad note is never a good thing, but I wasn't sure how well my usual methods of wrapping things up positively would work this time, especially for the humans! On a whim, I thought of Duke and decided to give the silent treatment a shot. I had the class spread out a bit and stand in one place with their dogs. Their instructions were simple: Don't say a word and don't physically touch the dog. The goal was eye contact and from that point, I wanted a simple "sit." Hand signals were fine but absolutely no talking or touching.

In no time, the room went quiet and all canine eyes were locked on the appropriate human. Doggy butts were soon planted on the floor and treats were casually handed over in silence. Our next step was to achieve a down the exact same way and it worked beautifully. We even worked a bit on stay. The best part? I watched tense, frustrated human expressions quickly become replaced by proud, pleased smiles. This was an exercise that I went on to use more regularly in similar situations with wonderful results.

Humans are very outspoken, usually.  We have strong opinions and wild ideas that we want to share with the rest of the world. People waste a lot of energy talking, to be honest. This frequently leads to misunderstanding, arguments, and even the ending of once-positive relationships. To our knowledge, no other creature on this planet can communicate with quite the complexity that we can. As a result, no other creature on this planet can find as many things to bicker, fight, and carry on about as we do! At the end of the day, you have to wonder whose methods of communication are more clear. I'll have to side with dogs and cats on that one. As much as I love the ability to share my own thoughts and opinions, I feel that if we couldn't talk there would be far less need to do so. It sounds crazy until you stop and think about it for a while. :)

Blind dogs must rely more on verbal cues,
and training one can be a crash course in
how difficult it is for dogs to understand
us without the help of eye contact and body
language.
Remember this when you're working with your dog, especially when becoming frustrated: Most of the words coming out of your mouth mean absolutely nothing to him, especially if they aren't said in a very precise way, after very precise training, and/or under very specific circumstances. Dogs pay more attention to body language and the things going on around them. Words will get you worked up in no time flat, which means you'll have almost no hope effectively communicating with a creature who just plain doesn't speak your language. The same applies to physically touching or manipulating the dog as a means of communication. At best, pushing or tugging a dog into position is absolutely sloppy and unclear. This is especially true with very energetic dogs. So, get your emotions in check first. Then, check your body language. Next, know exactly what you're going to ask your dog to do. You might accomplish the behavior by simply waiting for it to happen, then rewarding or encourage it using body language or luring. If you've been reading up on shaping behaviors using a clicker, then you'll have no trouble fitting this into a practice routine. (If you're not familiar with shaping then I highly recommend Jane Killion's book, When Pigs Fly.)

Obviously, this exercise by itself isn't the answer to all dog-related problems, but I firmly believe that it is at the root of the overall solution . I can't think of a single more valuable routine you could put into practice when it comes to learning how to truly communicate with and read a dog.

Give it a shot. Pick a familiar place with few or no distractions and train without a single word. Even if your dog doesn't know even one hand signal, see if you can teach him a simple one in silence by focusing on the body language you'd normally use when asking for a particular cue. No words. No physical manipulation. Just you, your dog, and a mutual understanding of subtleties that you never knew was there.

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