The More Important Tool: Part 4 of "It Is More Than Just Pushing a Button."
by Robin MacFarlane
Training is about creating a line of communication between you and your dog.
The final piece I want to touch on in our series of discussions explaining that it takes more than just knowing when to push an e-collar button to be a good dog trainer (See article: "It is More than Just Pushing a Button: Part One") addresses the most important piece of equipment of all.
Ultimately, training is about creating a line of communication between you and your dog. That means you are a key component, the tools are only a means to help you get there.
When I teach others about the various ways we can influence a dog's behavior, I make sure to point out that our body language is crucial. So often I witness people telling their dog one thing but their body language is telling the dog the exact opposite. For instance, many people move toward their dog while calling them to "Come". This is a common mistake and frequently causes training problems. Dogs instinctively tend to move away from what moves toward them, whereas they move toward (or follow) what moves away from them.
Let's take a look at a few dos and don'ts of using body language to influence your dog.
First rule, as I've said, is that dogs are most likely to move toward what moves away from them and away from what moves toward them. If you think about the idea that most dogs will chase a ball, a squirrel or kids running in the yard, you get the idea that they follow what moves away from them. It comes from an instinctual behavior to follow prey. So, when you are struggling to get your dog to come to you or walk with you, move away from the dog. For many folks this is counter-intuitive because we worry about needing to "catch the dog." But if you back away, walk away, or even skip if you want to and move in the direction opposite of your dog, you'll dramatically increase the odds of him coming toward you.
By the same token dogs typically move away from us when we follow them or try to catch them. (Particularly prior to having some training!) If we use this knowledge to our advantage we would get much better results by walking toward a dog when we want him to move AWAY from something. One of the easiest strategies to stop a dog from jumping on you is to continue to move toward the dog. Just like we all tend to back away from "close talkers," dogs learn not to jump on people who seem willing to walk right through them.
The ability to manipulate spatial pressure through body movements is highly effective once you understand how to utilize it to your advantage.
There is the body language message that bending down or over suggests. From a dog's perspective there is a big difference between bending at the waist and bending at the knees and what it communicates. Bending at the waist to greet a dog often causes the dog to shy away. They may back up slightly or go into a crouched, submissive position. It tends to be viewed as a potentially threatening position and it is not uncommon for some dogs to snap or nip when someone bends over them.
On the other hand, bending from the knees is far more inviting to a dog. If your pup is shy or hesitant about approaching people, having them bend down may help considerably. If you are working on a recall and your dog is stopping short or crouching when he comes in, notice if you're bending over toward him. The bending and body language toward the dog creates that bit of pressure that a sensitive dog may be trying to avoid. And on the flip side, that kind of pressure might be just what you need if your dog is one of those bulldozer types that barrels into you on the recall. The nuances of toward and away can be used highly effectively to encourage a dog to give or take space depending on the result you want.
There is a similar response to how you use your hands to approach a dog. Hands that come over the dog's head are more likely to be perceived as threatening. Hands that reach from under the muzzle, near the chest, or alongside the ears and neck create less apprehension. If you need to grab hold of your dog's collar you'll get less jumping back if you reach from the underside rather than over the dog's head.
Eye contact is the final bit I want to discuss. Eye contact is a tricky piece for a lot of people to master. It is just normal for us dog lovers to want to gaze at a dog. But in those attempts to look, too often people are staring directly at the dog and creating undue tension. A dog can learn to accept direct eye contact and stare back at us, but it is a trained skill and dogs don't naturally do it because it would be considered rude or challenging in the dog world.
Don't stare at your dog unless he is used to it and understands it is not a threat. On the flip side of that statement, you can use direct eye contact to impress upon a dog that you are in charge, but you had better know the dog pretty well and understand how to maintain that authoritative stance should you decide to take it.
One of the frequent places I see eye contact creating a problem is when people are trying to teach their dog to heel. Often they are looking back and down at the dog (which also throws the shoulder angle off). This not only creates pressure due to the dog being stared at, but I believe it suggests insecurity to the dog, as if the human is looking to the dog suggesting, "hey, I don't know where we're going, do you?" Rather than looking at the dog, handlers need to look ahead at where they are going. This will straighten out the shoulder angle, but it also will get the dog looking forward in the same direction. The dog will follow our gaze forward and the pair works as a much better team in heeling with greater precision.
This series of posts started out due to my frustration with some of the hype that surrounds remote collars and being labeled an "e-collar trainer" rather than a dog trainer who possesses a well-rounded set of skills. Hopefully these articles have been helpful in expanding everyone's skill set so they are better prepared to help their dogs learn regardless of what type of tool they are choosing.
The most important tool you have is the one between your ears. Keep learning and use it wisely.
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.