Body language is a powerful but often misunderstood tool for dog training
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The first thing I do when a new dog enters my home is nothing. What? Yes, when a new dog comes to my home for the first time, I ask nothing of the dog. Why? Dogs need to explore a new environment. It takes time for them to slowly get accustomed to a new routine.
We might not even think of having a routine at home, but when we get ready for work in the morning our routine could look something like this: getting the kids ready to catch their bus for school; packing our things for work; making sure we are going to catch that 8:05 bus. Your dogs knows this routine by heart.
Many people have said to me, “My dog can read my mind. My dog knows exactly when we are going to get in the car.” Yes, this is partially true. Our dogs know our every step — often better than we know them. Their ‘job’ is to watch us so that when we make that move to get our keys, they are ready to jump in the car. Our body language has tremendous power.
Dogs “speak” to each other through body language. Watch your dog play with another dog. Through their body postures, they signal “let’s play” or “I am no longer interested in playing I have to investigate this wonderful smell.”
How can we use our own body language to communicate more effectively with our dogs — using the same methods they use to “speak” to each other?
Let’s practice communicating like a dog. When we want to play with our dog we often use a lot of excited movements and gestures — we throw a ball or a stick, or we encourage them to catch that Frisbee.
We also use our voice to communicate excitement. The opposite happens when we want to convey calmness. The human signal for this is standing still. This sounds simple — so give it a try.
Take your dog to the back yard and throw the ball; then jump into the pool (your dog, if he likes water, will follow). Now let’s slow down the excitement by standing still. Do not pet your dog. Do not even give it a command to sit. What happens to the dog’s energy?
While I am a believer in tools to help us in the training process, such as collars, leashes, and treats, the most powerful tool we have is ourselves and the way we behave. Let’s look at a perfect example of what happens when human non-verbal communication sends the wrong message to our dog.
Sarah was convinced that her dog, Ty, was afraid of men. When walking Ty, she would bring him close to a fellow walking on the street and say “Ty is afraid of men. Could you pet him?”
Sarah’s concern about how her dog would react sent the wrong message to her dog Ty. By telling her neighbor that Ty was afraid of men, a few things happened. The tone of her voice changed. She was frightened, and Ty could hear the change in the sound of her voice. At the same time, Sarah began to tighten her leash.
What might have started as a simple leash correction became a very tense grip at the end of the leash. A leash correction, when done correctly, is released immediately. Sarah’s tense grip on the leash sent Ty the signal that something is wrong.
With help, Sarah was able to replace her negative self talk with positive self talk. We changed Sarah’s “mantra” from “Ty is afraid of men” to “Ty loves to meet new people.” Sarah learned to maintain a calm tone of voice. And she learned to not communicate fear through the leash.
Sarah was “dog whispering” — communicating what she really wanted to say to the dog in the dog’s own language, a language which is exquisitely sensitive to positive or negative energy as communicated through tone of voice, energy level, and connection to the dog through touching the dog or through their leash.
When training our dogs, these “simple” tools of dog communication are often the most effective.
Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training (www.inharmonydogtraining.com) in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 734-645-4707. Julia provides individual training for dogs and their owners, and also conducts dog training classes at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.