The previous post for the Thursday Training Blog Hop was about motivation and your dog, and one of the things you probably use already when doing so (and other forms of training) is acting. This is because acting includes a wide range of elements: tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and movements, and emotion.
A lot of it might come naturally, but when you think about it you probably do some of these things for “show” with your dog. If you’re having a bad day, you might put on a smile so your dog doesn’t worry. If you want to communicate that your dog is making an ill-advised decision, you may change your tone of voice to “mean business”, and so on. This is what I mean by using acting when training dogs.
Training your dog is about communication
You need to be consistent with dogs, but just as important is clarity. Clarity is communication, and the quality of it when you ask your dog to do something. You want your dog to perform a trick means you need to perfect the timing of your reward or click, but also you need to clearly ask what you want them to do for that reward. This could mean clearly luring them into position, pointing where you want them to go, or even distracting them from doing a different behavior. Ever needed to teach your dog to walk past another dog in a calm manner? This is an example of quality communication between you and your own dog and good timing. Does your dog look at your face for cues? He’s looking for you to communicate what is about to happen, what you want him to do.
Why is communication so important to a dog? Survival (such as food), safety, rest or play, and relationship. Dogs want to remain safe, so they look for cues about what might indicate danger – an unkind human, a threatening pose, and so on. They watch you for cues about when food might be coming out of the kitchen, or when you look like you might have a tidbit to share, or that they should remain calm when there is a perceived (to them) threat. They watch you for signs that you are preparing to leave. They look to your level of concern about the mailman at the door, whether you’re on top of it or perhaps they should rise to the occasion. They watch your body to indicate how you want them to move, or where you’re about to throw the toy.
You will give away cues when you don’t even notice you are. Ever had your dog know that you’re planning to leave the house before you even start to get ready? You probably did something, said something, or changed your demeanor before you even notice you did. Therefore, consciously deciding how to communicate to your dog through acting is a useful skill.
Sure, dogs are smart and may read between the lines. They might be able to tell that you’re truly sad beneath that smile. But that’s pretty complex, emotionally, and often dogs will accept what’s on the surface. Or at least, as far as I can tell!
Training your dog is also about relationship
It’s hard to make the communication, or acting, work as well as it can before you have an established bond with your dog. This can take time, and the time it takes depends entirely on you and your dog. Some bonds take a while to establish, particularly with fearful dogs. You might establish an incredibly tight bond in some areas – such as their trust to keep them safe from the world they fear – but being able to trust you enough to follow a new trick like “down”, or not panic, or relax and lay with their head on your lap might take a while. Or perhaps your dog is simply aloof, the relationship will be much different from a velcro dog.
All of your dogs will have their differences, from personality to communication needs to trust and bond. All of my dogs have been shy and/or fearful, yet the time it took to build a solid relationship/bond with them has been different – from two weeks, to 8 months. The main elements to develop a good relationship is time, patience, attention, communication, and loving devotion.
So about that acting…
Lets think about some of the forms of acting you might incorporate into your dog training and behavior work, why it’s important, and a few ideas of how to approach them.
Tone of voice
Without a doubt, dogs recognize and appreciate a change in the tone of your voice. You may use a “marker word” to tell your dog he just did something good, such as “yes” or “good”. You might also tell your dog he did something incorrect with an “ah ah” or “no”. But more important than the word itself is the tone in which its delivered. Using tone of voice means you can use pretty much whatever word your want, and your dog will at least have a gist about what’s going on that goes well beyond simple training. In fact, you can use tone of voice and forget about training specific words at all.
An example of how this was used in a practical exercise is when one of my dogs found a plate of likely to be poisoned meat near our house (people wanted to poison coyotes – not nice, and dangerous for the dogs). I used a pretty strong “fishmonger” tone of voice to tell my dog to “DROP IT”. He was new to me, and didn’t have any training on that cue (or any other – even “sit” was sketchy at the time). He was a lab-beagle mix, who lived for food. A simple dog who didn’t necessarily do what I said. Not too bright either. He dropped it. Instantly. And then ran to my side.
Dogs are pretty darn perceptive, so tone of voice is a very handy training tool and way to communicate with your dog… especially for emergency situations.
Note: Tone of voice is an easy way to frighten your dog, especially if she is sensitive. Don’t overdo it! You don’t want to break that trust with your dog. Save any extreme emotion or tone for emergencies only; make sure you use the appropriate level of expression at all times.
Facial expressions and body language
Do you notice your dog staring at you a lot? Right in the face-space? Of course! Many dogs look to you for cues all over (hence this post about acting), but one of the most important locations they look is your face for cues. Scientific studies have proven this – dogs look to your eyes for cues about what to do, where the food might be, and more.
So use your face. When you are saying “yes!” or “good!” – add a big smile! Make sure your dog associates your word, tone, and expression as the same thing: good. Dogs naturally understand these things, so association is helpful. For example, I “trained” my dog to stop putting his paws on the counter simply using an expression, as I wanted to know if he could associate a frown with not doing what he was currently doing. He seemed to understand, as each time I looked at him in a disapproving way, he removed his paws from the counter and sat.
Your dog will also understand body language – if you are stiff and nervous, loose and relaxed, and so on. Your dog will also understand pointing and turning, and react accordingly. Many dogs use this in your training class, and you might not even realize it. Scientific studies have proven that dogs even look at where you are looking, watching and understanding the movement of your eyes. So be very conscious of how you are using your body, and the language and signs you are communicating with it.
Controlling your actions when training your dog
While you don’t want to go overboard, you do want to be obvious. That’s where the acting is involved. You want clear communication in a variety of events using your body, your face, and your voice. You want to use enough “acting” to ensure your dog understands, but you don’t want to instill any fear if you need to demonstrate leadership. For some dogs, you don’t want to go over the top with excited happiness – this makes one of my dogs worry! So you want to make sure you use enough acting, but not too much.
An example of when I use leadership with my dog, Mort. He barks a lot when someone arrives at our door. I choose to allow this, as it’s an excellent way to deter thieves or anyone else who shouldn’t be around our house. However, when I choose to open the door (say for our very patient mail carriers), I want him to stop barking. So I push my shoulders back (body language), look at him (facial expressions), and use a very authoritative tone (voice) and say “Hey, man, I got this” … “Nope, really. I got it”. No formal commands-based training, no cue word, not my own natural emotion – just acting. Getting the point across to him, loud and clear. That said, if I was to raise my voice too much, he’d roll on his back because he’s worried I’m mad or something. So our back and forth at the door is enough, but not too much.
Where to go from here
Grab a video camera – such as your phone, or even better a GoPro strapped to your dog. Take some videos of your training sessions, and carefully watch yourself and listen to your tone of voice. Watch how your dog reacts, from his body language to timing. This can greatly help you learn how to communicate more effectively.
If you have a GoPro, consider strapping it to a specially made harness for the camera. This enables you to actually watch yourself from your dogs point of view. A little scary for me, but highly educational when it comes to your own interactions with your dog in all the areas above.