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The Importance of Silence
I spend the majority of my time with dogs, not people. My days are a systematic arrangement of total chaos. I'm up early, getting boarders outside for potty break, then I scrub floors, change bedding, prepare meals, poop scoop etc. Then we start our exercise routines, or load up the car for dog chauffeuring. I will admit that while hanging with dogs, I often will chat with them about what is going to happen next, usually in a completely conversational tone. "Well Rio, I guess we'd better do a load of dog laundry and get it on the line." "Ok Swanson, time to get playgroups started and you're going to have to be patient because fetch isn't the game right now." "Badger, you go make my coffee, will you?" But mostly, these snippets are just for me, and because I'm prone to narrating to myself anyway, embarrassingly enough. However, if I am actually trying to communicate to my dogs in a way that requires them to act, I have to change my entire tone, strip down the words, and wait.
One of the major issues almost all dog trainers will tell you about is clients repeating commands in a rapid fire way, giving no time for the dog to hear, process and translate in the information. Our instant gratification button seems to be in overdrive- "sit, sit, SIT!" we cry, while a squirmy pup bites his tail, jumps up and down and generally ignores us until the last, loud yell. But it's not the volume that is actually communicating the command to the dog more effectively- it's the silence after the exaggeration. To effectively communicate with one's dog- you have to be patient, stubborn and quiet. The more times that you repeat a command, the less impact it has. The command becomes "Down, Down, Down, Down" as opposed to "Down". But it's not just that you are changing the command to need to be given several times- it's that you're overriding the dog's ability to think clearly and focus.
In a recent training session a client commented that I must be the most patient person on the planet. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, I'm terribly impatient and have a tendency to impulsive. Maybe that's why I find dog training so rewarding- it forces me to not rely on those habits. When teaching a dog something new, you have to repeat a pattern multiple times, in incremental steps, and reward each step until you form a full command. You're vastly better off avoiding assigning a verbal command until the dog has completely formed the proper behavior. For an easy example, consider "sit". If you follow the same luring process as almost all trainers, you would hold a cookie above the dogs head, and push it backwards, so that the dog, following it with their nose, automatically drops their butt to the floor. Then you reward. But do not add the word "sit" at this point. Instead, practice the pattern over and over, until a simple lifting of your hand (the first cue) causes the dog to drop their butt. Body language is a dog's first language, so starting with a hand signal is vastly clearer for the dog, and furthermore- it teaches you to be quiet. Once the dogs pattern is perfected, you then can start to add the word "sit" while offering the hand motion. Over time and practice, the verbal cue takes on the meaning of the hand signal, and you can use them in combination or interchangeably. But because the dog first associated the hand signal with the food reward and clear pattern- you can just have the word "sit" rather than verbal buckshot.
This same process works for nearly every command, basic to advanced. You don't want to leave your dog without any cues, however. Using clear, consistent verbal markers is equally important. When a dog is offering me a behavior, if it's incorrect, I usually will communicate a "uh, uh" rather than a "no"- because "no" is a the word I rely on for more severe transgressions- not the learning process. At the same time- even if the command doesn't have a verbal cue yet- I will say "Yes!" in an overly enthusiastic tone when the dog has performed what I've asked- to help them understand that they have made the correct connection. Otherwise, I remain quiet, and do not repeat the dog's name multiple times. Usually, for my dogs, their name is basically synonymous for "look at me", and occasionally for "come" but my dogs usually just stop and look at me, awaiting further instruction. If they are out of sight, their name will often mean they need to return for the next command- but fortunately it seems that they almost inherently know this. But if they are within eye-sight, their name indicates there is another word, or set of words, as short as possible, that will tell them what I need next. And when I receive that eye contact, I often pause, make sure our connection is good (like testing a phone line, I want full clear lines of communication, which means sustained eye contact) and then issue the next step. It is because I create this "quiet" space in between the dog's name, and the next step that they are more likely to respond as I hope. And if they do not perform the request, I then follow up with either of the verbal corrections "no" for doing something completely opposite (like running away) or "uh, uh" like coming close but then veering off when asked to "come" completely to me.
If you are struggling to teach your dog anything at all- try this exercise. Ask for all of the basics that the dog knows already- but do it in a very intentional way. Grab some treats and do a little calibration. Begin with the most reliable command, let the dog know that there is food available as a reward- you want the dog to do these things easily. Practice each command by only saying it one time, and then wait. Use verbal cues if behavior is offered, even the incorrect one. Count to 25 AT LEAST, before issuing the command a second time, with a hand signal. If the dog can't perform anything that you think they know with this process- start teaching that command over. Seriously. Slow down and assign full meaning to that command. If they are able to do everything you expect- with no additional prompting- the command is solid and their success will boost them to try again at the new concept. Go slow, be quiet, and marvel as your dog starts to trust your word's meaning in ways you hand't seen previously. It's not magic, its just clarity. And in interspecies communication- there is nothing more important.
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