Non Verbal Communication – What you’re really telling your dog.

Visit your local obedience class on Saturday and you are more than likely to see a bunch of people yelling sit!, down!, stay! at their dogs to no avail. Puppy is anxiously looking at its owner wondering what all the noise is about and whether it should be doing something. The people get frustrated and shout louder, and the dog either cowers in fear or starts barking, thinking that a game of who can bark the loudest has begun. So what went wrong? Where is the communication breaking down?

Well, the first thing we need to establish is that most dogs are not deaf. Shouting louder will not make your command any clearer to your dog. Consider whether your dog has learnt the meaning of the word. Dogs do not come from their mothers knowing that sit means “Put your bum on the floor and look adoringly at your human”. I can (and someday will, just for the fun of it) teach a dog to sit on the command “Spaghetti”. As long as I have paired the word with the action, it will happen.

Now, consider your body language. When you said sit (and we’re assuming that your dog understands the word), were you standing upright, bending over or looking away from your dog? All these things have a huge impact on how our dogs understand what we are trying to communicate. Most dogs are not leaders and will respond favourably to someone standing up straight, shoulders back, yet relaxed. The message the dog gets from this is that this person is in control. He or she is calm, confident and in charge – a worthy pack leader. If you are all hunched over, appearing smaller than you are and have a note of doubt in your voice, the picture you are giving is now very different. Now you are a submissive creature, you need to be led, told what to do.

Another issue is eye contact. Stare at your dog and you will find he looks away. This is often misinterpreted as guilt, but it’s not. In fact your dog is acknowledging you as an aggressor and is trying to appease you to make sure there is no fight. Look away from your dog and he will probably come to you. Personally I think this is why cats always pick the person who is allergic to them to sit on!!

At this point I want to include tone of voice although it is, strictly speaking, verbal communication. If I use a deep angry sounding voice, my dog is going to think he’s doing something wrong, whereas if I use a happy confident tone, the opposite will result. This goes hand in hand with your posture. I had a dog who would sit and grin appeasingly at me, wagging her entire body to show me she was my absolute inferior and was sorry for whatever bad thing she had done when I stood up straight, put my hands on my hips, scowled and said in a deep scary voice “Where’s my sweet Tessie girl? I love you so much” etc etc. She read my body language, heard my tone of voice and decided she had been bad. All she wanted now was to make up for it – whatever “it” was.

So how do we put this into practice? Well, simply put, learn to listen to your body. If you are having a bad day and you’re slumped over and you half- heartedly tell your dog to sit, it’s unlikely he’s going to sit. Stand up straight believe that your dog will sit (you can pretend if you have to!) and confidently say Sit and the chances are good that he will. Remember – this will only work if he actually knows what the word means.

Maybe your dog is an adolescent knucklehead who just loves to jump up and give you big fat sloppy kisses. Well, widen your eyes, look directly at him and step towards him the minute you see the “let’s jump up” thought enter his head. He’ll soon think better of it.

Now your mischievous little terrier has spotted a squirrel and run down the driveway to chase it. The gates are open and you don’t have the remote nearby. Combine your tone of voice with your body language by yelling a big loud deep NO to get his attention, followed by a happy “come puppy” while TURNING AWAY from your dog and running in the opposite direction. Our gut instinct is to run after our dogs, but usually all we end up doing is “enjoying” a huge game of chase. This is because your dog will either interpret this as an aggressive act on your part and so will run away, or if he is not so sensitive, he’ll think you want to play with him. By turning away and running once we have the dog’s attention, we are in fact inviting him to come and join our game back by the house. Remember to praise him when he does join you.

When training your dog to walk on the leash, always step off with the same foot. Typically in dog training we use our left foot. Combine this with stepping off on the other foot when teaching the stay, and your dog will have learnt to come with you when you step off on the left, and to stay behind when you step off on the right. This way you will eventually be able to walk your dog and carry on an uninterrupted conversation with your walking partner. Remember also to walk up straight, facing forward and take confident steps so that your dog respects your leadership and follows you, rather than taking the lead himself.

As with all training, remember that consistency is key. Even if your body language is perfect, your dog may not respond the first time, but be consistent and ultimately he will.

Remember also that your body language can shout. Use large expansive gestures with the confident knuckleheads, but be more subtle with Sensitive Sally. She’ll be scared if you are overpowering in your confidence and will be unable to learn how to behave.