Learning how to communicate with your Dog is essential in establishing a strong & bonded relationship. Like all relationships, there is a process and dynamic that occurs from the very start that deepens and builds.
Just as it’s important for your Dog to understand clearly what your expectations are, it is equally important for you to understand your Dog. Dogs are different from humans in that they don’t “reason” as we do, yet, their basic emotional make up and brain processes are similar to ours.
When I was doing Rescue in NYC and fostering Dogs, I realized that many of them were never trained but beyond that I came to realize that many of them came from Spanish speaking neighborhoods. So it didn’t matter one iota what I SAID to any of them.
This was the very first step in my realization that Dogs truly are NON VERBAL BEINGS and no matter what background and ethnic language from which they originate, there is always a barrier with humans when it comes to verbal language. They feel as you might feel if you were suddenly taken & dropped into a foreign country and then required to get around not knowing one word. That even trying to ask a local where the bus stop is can be a stressful experience.
So if that happened to you, what would you do? Well, it’s what I did with this Spanish neighborhood Foster Dog. I simply started POINTING. I pointed to her food bowl when I wanted her to go eat. I pointed towards the door when we were about to go out for a walk. I pointed when on leash when we were about to change direction. I pointed towards her crate when I wanted her to go in. I simply pointed and never said one word, didn’t make a sound. And guess what? She responded! She understood exactly what I wanted and did so without any hesitation. Eureka! We were communicating!
While this might not seem particularly pyrotechnic for many, for me, it was a powerful experience. It felt like there was a Secret revealed. In fact, beyond being one of my very first Lessons that Dogs taught me, it changed the course of my Life. It opened a door to go deeper with Dogs, to study Behavior and begin to try to master the Language of Dogs. So far, it has been a dedicated 18 year journey that continues to unfold. As a Teacher, that little moment forged a new trail for me to wander without books but to use my own methods of simple observation and conclusion. To assess both successes and failures equally. To learn through experience and “feel” my way through. It established the fundamental question I now ask of every Dog I work with, “Who are you? And what do you have to teach me?” To be a good Teacher one must always be a good Student.
I became more open and curious as I met & approached Dogs. Instead of using human arrogance “thinking” that I was going to show them MY way, I began to use a different part of myself - my senses ,energy & silent signals to connect with their Spirit, their Hearts and find THEIR way. And I discovered that we met somewhere in the middle. For isn't that what authentic relationships are all about? Are they not:
*A fundamental exchange of mutual respect even when there are differences?
*A give and take?
*A sharing of affection and a commitment to growth and evolvement?
*A partnership where both parties support one another, sometimes even help heal our broken hearts?
* Provide encouragement to keep going through the challenges that Life can bring?
*Where true partnerships can reflect our failures without judgement so we can notice them yet inspire us to do better?
*To give each other space in which to grow without inflicting our Agendas upon each other?
*Where we learn about commitment and work through challenging times and not give up?
*And the fruition of a well established, honest & communicative relationship is that we also experience a mutual Joy that can arise when two energies co-emerge and attain a mutual goal.
Those qualities, to me, are some of the aspects that define a healthy and authentic Relationship. And the dynamics in a relationship with a Dog are no different than those with humans.
Opening people to considering the possibility that there is a different way to be with our Dogs is at the core of all of my work. In fact, I prefer not to use the word “Trainer” but Teacher as my focus is very much on the people. If they understand some basic Principles, the relationship with their Dogs will continue to flourish long after they graduate from one of my Programs. The Dogs are easy, but people? We are a far more difficult species to learn new ways and habits. I always try to point out when people are struggling with handling skills or feeling like their not getting the best response from their Dogs to turn that around and know that their Dogs are often feeling the same. They, too, are struggling to learn new ways, understand our expectations and become fluent in this new world of humans. Simply pointing this out to my human students often relaxes the entire process. And when people relax, so do their Dogs and then learning can begin.
Training a Dog to perform rote Cues (or that macho word that many Trainers still use, Command), is not really the fruition of a communicative relationship. It is just one side of the coin. It is just a start of teaching them what our human sounds mean. One word/one action. Once some muscle memory is established & associative response is achieved , a Dog will SIT when he has been conditioned to hear that word but without connection with one another, it’s really not having a communicative relationship particularly. And sometimes these conditioned responses are taught with aversive and harsh, if not on the edge of abusive, methods. Your Dog will do it but is he offering the behavior or is he simply fearful if he will not? But that’s another topic for another day - my point of this entry is about considering if what you have with your Dog is authentic? Have you really established a mutual understanding of one another’s language? Relationship is a current buzz word in the Dog World lately and it sounds really good. But is that what is really happening between you and your Dog? Or is he just on rote control? Are you really exchanging your Hearts? Is your Dog just functioning because you said so or is he truly understanding your expectations and responding because he or she is engaged in a dialogue with you? Do they feel your Smile and encouragement, your support, or do they just do it to avoid getting a harsh tone of human voice, or worse, discomfort and/or pain inflicted? Do you speak a little bit of Dog and teach them to understand a little bit of Human? And most importantly, does your Dog know when he has gotten the right answer? Given the correct response?
As with all relationships, it will be fraught with mistakes, misunderstandings and sometimes conflict. If your Dog seems resistant it is often the simple fact that we are not being clear. The good news is that Dogs are very forgiving, so erase the blackboard and try again. If you are willing, so are they. Relationships grow and flourish over time just as it does with people. So take your time, keep it simple and fresh. Think about the word “connection” vs. “command”. This can truly change the dynamic and open a swinging door. It will establish what I call a “Rhythm & Flow” with your Dog. A synchronicity. Synchronized teamwork where you work together as one. There is no longer object/subject, the Dog over there, me over here - but we connect and move together. We accomplish this by working with the two languages of both parties.
I encourage you to consider these comments. To consider that if you listen to your Dog with your senses, with honesty, openness and curiosity, they will teach you what you need to know. To stop chatting so much with our running stream of verbals, for it is just gibberish to our Dogs. But instead, to speak a little “Dog” - which is getting out of our thinking Heads and simply focus on our body signals, for that is how Dogs fundamentally communicate with other Dogs and how they interpret the World around them. So try it. Just Point with a quiet Mind. Point with clarity and silence. Dogs will greatly appreciate your efforts. They will give you a response of understanding with their entirety, showing you their willingness to send their Hearts and a willingness to learn because you have shown them yours. Slowly, over time, we will find ourselves in a Relationship that is authentic. Truthful, honest and clear. Where two individuals share a mutual love and respect for one another.
Be kind to your Dogs. Be patient. Be respectful. Let them be Dogs, not robotic responders. Think about the Relationship you currently have with your Dog and re-evaluate. Maybe today, if you are not already, you could go at it a different way - their way. So begin to speak some Dog - simply Point. Point the way and direction to establishing one of the most heartfelt Relationships we are privileged to undertake. The rewards experienced by both parties are simply immeasurable.