Communication with Your Service Dog In Training
Developing a working relationship with your service dog or assistance dog is all about having good communication both ways between you and your dog.
What is Communication?
Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviour”. Notice communication is two way and there is no reference to “verbal”? Interesting!
Body Language: A Dog’s Natural Tendency
For canines, using body language to determine another individual’s intention is a skill that is learned easily. These natural tendencies transfer easily to humans if the dog has been exposed to functional people when they are growing up and learning social skills. This might mean looking at your eyes to determine what you are looking at, using their periphery to see shoulders, hips or feet orientation to predict where they are going or looking at their face to see their emotions. Some dogs are better at it than others, but they all have this tendency towards body language as their primary mode of communication.
Hand signals are a subset of body language. Any motion by the handler’s hands, arms, knees or feet or even a head nod, especially if it is associated with a specific behavior, context or object, will be noticed by an attentive dog and can be used to communicate.
Often what is in their environment and how they use objects in that environment can cue (tell) the dog what behavior is needed. A round object on the wall is a cue to push it to open a door. A curb is a place to stop and wait until cued to move forward. The harness a dog wears becomes associated with a specific job like pulling forward and is part of the cue for the pulling behavior when the handle is gripped. The specific cues can be learned very quickly if they are specifically taught in those environments with the objects, rather than assuming the dog will figure it out on their own through repetition.
Interestingly, verbal communication is low on most dog’s way of preferred communication. Verbal is different than vocal which are sounds the dog naturally makes like whining, barking etc. Verbal refers to the sounds and syllables that make up words. Most dogs can learn verbal cues associated with movement (sit, down, bring, find etc) quite easily. Some dogs find it very difficult to learn verbal cues that are not related to movement. Words that modify nouns and verbs (like left and right, higher and lower, bigger or smaller etc) can take quite awhile for most dogs to learn.
Some people think they need to bark out commands with a short sharp tone to get their dog to do a behavior. Instead, using a normal tone and regular speed and loudness is all that is needed. Given the time and opportunity to figure it out, most dogs will pick up the key words from a sentence and do what you need her to do. Some common examples are getting the dog’s leash or harness or your shoes before you go out for a walk, as long as they are accessible to the dog. Most dogs are highly motivated to learn verbal cues for these as they predict a walk. If the dog enjoys doing other behaviors too, then she is likely to pick up those words too. You can then generalize the learning of verbal cues.
How Can You Help Your Dog?
1. Take the time to figure out and teach body cues that help your dog predict your behavior in the next few seconds. For example, instead of turning abruptly to your left, shorten your stride a bit on the step just before the turn so you take an extra step. This gives the dog time to react to the change. We tend to do this naturally when not in formal training sessions and the dog quickly learns to watch our feet or other body parts as a predictor we are turning.
2. Tell your dog what you are planning to do in advance of doing the behavior. Teach him hand cues, then verbal cues verbal cues like slow and stop, Let’s go or left or right as their own behavior. Then, if you use these words, he will already know what they mean and will just need help generalizing them to other situations. Getting up from a settle is a good example where it is important to teach him an intermediary behavior like a nose target to get him up from the ground and give him a chance to wake up and stretch before moving away with you.
3. Teach your dog the environmental cues for specific behaviors or tasks. Back chain their use such as approaching a door opening button from further and further away. Take the time to teach them in many different environments until your dog can figure them out on their first visit to a new location. If you don’t know what back chaining is, join our "Foundation Skills for Service Dogs" class that will teach you this and many other ways to help your dog learn and generalize skills.
4. Learn Dog Body Language. Our dogs are communicating to us all the time! We may not be aware of what they are trying to tell us and instead wait until the dog is giving us huge signals and then we react to their ‘loud’ communication, often in anger or frustration. By learning to read more subtle signs of stress and excitement, we can acknowledge something is happening to our dog and head it off before the situation escalates. This is particularly important if the dog alerts to our stress. We are a big part of our dog’s environment and he reacts to our medical and emotional behavior. That is why they make such great assistance animals! Take a course or two on canine behavior and body language. You can start here by taking Donna’s online self-paced class “Dog as a Second Language” at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
Taking the time to make sure that your dog really understands what you are communicating and also that you understand what he is communicating to him can make the difference between a good partnership and a great one with your service dog!