Mar 24, 2019
Speaking Clearly…Without Words
Dogs respond much better to body language than to any words one might use
By Jeremy Moore
One question I hear often is, “What did you say to get the dogs to do that?”
I usually respond with a lengthy explanation of the idea behind whatever action my dog just did. The answer could revolve around a theory or general training philosophy, and more specifically how that relates to another linked behavior I used to incorporate the next step in a back-chaining effect in order to achieve a desired response.
Then I typically get a response of “No, I mean what command did you say that got the dog to do that?”
I think the individual asking the question hopes my answer will be a one or two-word phrase, but rarely is it that simple. Ask my wife or kids. They’ll tell you when I’m asked a simple question, it’s not often you get a simple answer. Instead, be prepared for an explanation that might take a while. You may even prepare yourself to answer some questions in order for me to finalize my reply to your original inquiry. To be blunt, I can get long winded when I start talking dogs and training.
Speak silently with body language
More often than not, when I experience or witness failure in just about any situation – whether it has to do with business or work, personal relationships, sports or teams – it’s almost always linked back to some kind of breakdown in communication. Almost always I find it’s due to a lack of communication. It’s simply too easy to make assumptions and mistakes when there is not enough communication.
The art of communicating well is something I constantly strive to improve, and the only way I will achieve this is by talking more to those parties involved. When it comes to communication between humans, more is often better.
However, when it comes to dogs, the reality is that rarely do the words we choose matter much at all. In fact, I think one of the more common mistakes I see from handlers is too much verbal communication between themselves and the dog. It can even be magnified at times because of our “humanizing” of dogs. We see it in the cartoons and Disney movies and carry on full conversations with our dogs as if they were people.
The reality is they are not people, and we have to understand they speak differently than we do. It may sound strange, but the best way to effectively communicate with a dog is not to talk more, but instead to speak silently.
So, if we’re not talking to them, how do we tell them what we want? There are plenty of old adages I believe make the point well.
“Actions speak louder than words” was a common statement from my mom growing up. It simply means what I do is more important than what I say. Another personal favorite comes from Saint Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and only when necessary, use words.”
This one has a lot of meaning for me personally, and I think it makes a lot of sense regardless of your faith or spirituality. We don’t have to say things because it’s “the right thing to say.” Instead, we just need to do things when it’s the right thing to do.
The most effective means of communicating with my dogs has always been, and always will be, without words. Instead, it comes with clear body language.
I recently read an article talking about the importance of body language as it applies to a basketball player, but I think it can also be used in the case of working with our dogs. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“Body language is louder than your voice because you don’t have to be close by to hear it, you can see it from the stands, the sidelines, the film, or the court. You can’t hide your body language, it’s a billboard. What is your billboard saying? Your body language reveals how mentally tough you are, how mature you are, and how well you manage your emotions.”
-By Julie Fournier, founder & CEO of Basketball is Psychology
Our body language is our billboard, and our dogs know how to read those billboards.
Sub: Stand tall and own their eyes
I believe a dog is always looking for a leader, and if they don’t find the leader, they will look to become the leader.
A good leader is usually the one that stands tall in the face of adversity. A good leader carries themselves well on all levels. They make good, strong decisions mentally, and that also becomes visible physically.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who just couldn’t muster the ability to look you in the eye? They might be standing with their shoulders shrugged or with a rounded back, looking about, looking past you or maybe staring down at the ground. There is just something about those kinds of conversations that make me uncomfortable and not able to take the person seriously. I often question the sincerity, or at a minimum, their confidence and belief in what they are telling me.
All of that just because they aren’t able to stand up straight and look me in the eye? Body language speaks loudly.
When it comes to our dogs, simply standing up straight, looking them in the eyes, and demanding they return the look is a crystal-clear message that we are in charge and confident to be in the position. Even if the decisions we make are not the best, at least we look the part and our dogs are more likely to both respect and follow us in those moments.
When to bow down?
I’m big on gaining a dog’s respect and I don’t believe that comes by striking fear into them. I know how much my physical actions through my body language affect a dog’s belief in me, as well as how much it can influence the dog’s actions physically and mentally.
Another common complaint I hear is about a dog that just won’t come when called, and the handlers want to find a fix. A dog that doesn’t come when called is not only annoying, but it can be very dangerous. It starts as a raised voice hollering the dog’s name, gradually increasing in volume. Then the tone starts to change, and the neighbors can tell your temper is heating up.
You stand tall and look as big and bold as you can – maybe even making a few short steps toward the dog as they look at you from across the yard. Shortly thereafter, the dog’s name is preceded by a few words I won’t include in this G-rated article. You get the picture, though.
Often you just know the dog can hear because you see them look your way when you call. They’re just choosing to ignore your request. I think that’s part of it, and the permanent fix is to change the habit.
But the other part of the equation is that as you increase your volume and start to change your tone, you become pretty scary to the dog. Who wants to come to someone that is red hot with anger and challenging me physicallyby making charges? You know what’s likely to happen when they finally do get within arm’s distance, and it isn’t likely to be welcomed in warmly.
Instead, try changing the billboard message. When you want the dog to come to you, physically get down, closer to their level. Open your arms and show them a comforting, warm place to come to. It’s like the international sign for “Welcome.”
By changing body language alone – no words needed – a dog, a kid, any human would see that as a welcoming gesture. They would be much more likely to come to you. From there, you still have some work to do with recall drills in order to reverse that bad habit, but now you have the right forum in which to do so, and it has nothing to do with a command or word, and everything to do with your body language.
These are just a two specific examples of how important your body language plays in your training, handling, and ultimately, communicating with your dog. Simply understanding how you best communicate effectively with your dog is the start. Executing on that understanding is your next step in becoming a better communicator, and ultimately, a better handler.
Best of luck in your training!
Jeremy Moore has trained dogs for more than 15 years. His approach to training is to maximize a dog’s potential without using force and bring out their natural abilities. He created the DogBone training products line, which is designed to allow all dog owners to successfully train their own dog by combining the right tools with the information to put those tools to use. Visit www.dogbonehunter or FB, IG, Twitter and YouTube @dogbonehunter for more information.