The Importance of Body Language and Facial Cues in Communication

Our ability to communicate with dogs is one of the primary reasons why we were able to nurture  our human-canine bond so effectively. Body language is an important communication tool as since they are unable to speak, the rely heavily on body language. Our bodies communicate concepts to our dogs and effective communication relies on knowing how you are displaying yourself. Dogs can pick up on subtle body language ques and will change their behaviors accordingly. If you are happy and calm during a stressful situation, it will help your dog relax.

My body language and its role in communication affects Odin and I during our daily walks. Odin is leash reactive towards other dogs which results in him barking/lunging towards the other dogs when we pass them. When I would prepare to pass by other dogs, I would become tense, shorten/tighten the leash, and my body would display my stress. I did not realize that Odin could read my body language and stress. By tensing up, I was inadvertently signaling my worry to Odin, which in turn made him concerned and defensive. Later on, when I started to walk more carefree and relaxed by other dogs, he began to relax too. Confidence and reassurance in your body language when approaching a stressful situation helps your dog also feel more confident and reassured. Although Odin is still is reactive, his reactivity is significantly better when I appear to be confident and reassure him.

This week I was reading an interesting study by Corsin Muller at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna about whether or not dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces without relying on other cues. The study sought to determine whether or not dogs could distinguish between happy and angry expressions on human faces. The dogs were presented with images of happy faces and angry faces on a computer screen and were asked to “nose-touch” one of the faces, and regardless of which face they touched they would receive a treat.

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It was discovered that the dogs performance in the study was affected by the face they were touching. Dogs were quicker to “touch” the happy faces while they were more hesitant and less inclined to “touch” the angry faces. The study determined that dogs CAN distinguish our emotion from our faces and it makes sense. Why would a dog want to approach an angry looking human? We (humans) generally display anger towards our dogs when they are in trouble and they associate the expressions on our faces with punishment. This study showed the important role our expressions play in communicating with canine companions

It is important to be aware of your body language and how you are presenting yourself, as you dog is looking for cues on how to behave. Training should be fun and relaxing, and communicating confidence while training will increase your success. If you communicate your confidence and reassurance during training, they will be more likely to respond positively and the training will be more effective.

Resources:

Müller CA, Schmitt K, Barber ALA, Huber L. 2015. Dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces. Current Biology, 25, 601—605.

I Can Destroy This: Destruction and Boredom

When you lose your determination and begin slipping and falling behind on your training, it can have serious consequences. When dogs do not get enough physical or mental stimulation, they look for ways to entertain themselves. This usually means they begin chewing or destroying something important to you (shoes, your couch, etc.). Similar to humans who get bored and become unproductive at work, dogs become bored when they lack engagement. However, while humans will turn to Facebook to curb their boredom, your dog will probably turn to your favorite pair of shoes.

The best way to prevent destructive and neurotic behaviors is to ensure that you are providing your dog with plenty of ways for them to exercise their body and mind. Like I stated before in my first blog post, a tired dog is a good dog. Daily walks, nose-work, tug of war, dog sports and games, are great ways of ensuring you have a tired dog.

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A few other destructive behaviors that unsatisfied dogs can display are digging, chewing and tearing things apart, pacing, or repetitive activities. Being determined and sticking to your training schedule will reduce the amount of these destructive behaviors you will see in your dog. In addition, if your dog spends too much time alone, don’t be surprised when they start displaying these behaviors. Just as humans need interaction with each other, so do dogs. Dogs are social animals and having limited interactions with them are going to have consequences. When dogs are bored, they misbehave. Like Odin pictured below when he decided that it was time for his stuffed pig to be disemboweled as a result of boredom.

Everyone gets busy and cannot spend 24/7 with their dog so make sure that the time you do spend with them is meaningful. Spend that time communication and motivating them to complete a job that will leave them mentally and physically satisfied. Get in the habit of interacting with them and engaging with them daily. Make time before and after work to walk them and enrich their minds. Engage in a fun activity with your dog, such as exploring a new area or new environment. This last Saturday during Odin’s Summer Continued Obedience Class, instead of working on training and sits and downs, his trainers pulled out toys, ramps, balancing platforms, and small kiddie pool filled with the balls you would find in a McDonald’s Play Place ball pit. This provided the dogs with a new, interesting environment that the dogs could explore and stimulate their brains.  

Get into the habit of interacting, engaging and exercising with your dog. Tiring out your dog goes a long way in avoiding destructive behaviors and having both you and your dog lead happier lives.

5 Ways to Stay Determined

Longevity of training takes determination. Determination requires a change in mindset that allows you to see the importance of completing a task daily. If you don’t create a daily training routine, your dog may become neurotic. Listed below are 5 steps that I have used to ensure that I stay determined in meeting Odin’s long term training goals:

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1. Create a Clear Plan – Determine the big picture goal you want to achieve with your training as it will give you a direction for creating smaller goals. Design your daily training schedule around these smaller goals. For Odin, my goal is to have an obedient, happy, and calm dog. For obedience, we work on creating solid recalls and practice listening to commands from a distance. For happiness, we use games to solidify his training and positive reinforcement. For calmness, we practice Dr. Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. To turn your goals into action, you need clear action steps for how you will achieve them on a daily basis. I keep a list of my goals on a chalkboard wall in my living room so they are visible and they help me see how these daily tasks contribute to the bigger picture.

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2. Plan Quick Wins – Incorporating quick wins into your training will help keep you and your dog determined and motivated. These are things that you know can be accomplish quickly. Yesterday, Odin was having a rough time with training and I decided that we could use a quick win. We switched to learning the trick “tell me a secret” which I knew he could learn quickly. It only took him a handful of tries to catch on. Quick wins will help increase engagement and motivation, especially when it feels like you are not succeeding.

3. Visualize the Rewards – On days when it is hard to bring yourself to devote time to training try watching a training video to help you visualize the rewards you are working towards. I currently follow a handful of Border Collie trainers (my favorite is PositiveDogCare) on Instagram and their posts get me excited about training. Sometimes, your determination can be reignited by seeing what you are working towards.

4. Recover/Learn From Mistakes – Sometimes life disrupts your schedule and you fall behind. Don’t let that stop you from continuing, rather you should determine why you were falling behind. I fell behind on Odin’s recall training because it required a lot of prep work as I would practice in a field where they were a lot of good distractions for recall practice. Since it was time consuming, I would always convince myself that I didn’t have time to take him out. So, I started to change my behavior to accommodate recall practice. I could incorporate distractions inside the house so we could train on recalls while I was watching TV, or getting ready for work. All I needed to do was set up a distraction for him and have my clicker and treats on me.

5. Ask for Help – If you are having trouble keeping up with your training schedule, sign up for training classes. Most classes are affordable and occur weekly which is a great way to keep a training schedule. Currently, Odin is in 3 classes that meet once a week: Rally, Nose-work, and Continued Obedience. Being in these classes greatly helps me keep on track with his training. Even if I may slip on training at home, I know that I have 3 scheduled classes that will keep us moving towards our goal.

 

Clicker Communication: Click and Treat

There are multiple ways to communicate with your dog. You can use treat luring, positive reinforcement, shaping with clickers/markers, and/or body language. This week, I will be discussing how clicker/marker reinforcement can be used to effectively communicate. You may not have known it, but you have probably experienced clicker reinforcement in your daily life. When you see a cop in your rearview mirror, you automatically slow down. This is similar to clicker reinforcement. Seeing the cop was your signal, and your behavior was to slow down.  

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Clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement and is a variation of Pavlovian Training. To begin conditioning, you click then treat to create an associate between the “click” and the reward. Then, you wait for them to offer up the behavior you want on their own, then click and  reinforce with a treat. The dog learns to associate the “click” as something good that they will be rewarded for. I had been using this type of communication with Odin, however instead of using a clicker, I had been using the verbal marker “Yes!” as my “click” and would reward with a treat after responding with “yes”. This week I tried switching to the clicker and was impressed with the results. The clicker ensures that it is the same pitch/sound the dog is associating with doing a good job. When using a verbal marker, it is easy for the dog to confuse different fluctuations in pitches and sound of the verbal marker. The “yes” I use sounds very different from the “yes” my husband uses. When using a clicker for training, the device makes the same click sound regardless of who clicks it.

This week in class, we were working on using clicker training to train Odin to sharpen his own nails on a large emery board. As soon as Odin would look at the board, I would “click” then treat. As soon as he put one or two feet on the board, I would click and treat. Eventually, once he starts to move his front paws on the board I will click then treat. This will continue until he performs the full desired behavior of sharpening his own nails. For shaping, you wait for them to offer up the behavior on their own, and then click. The click communicates the behavior we want him to perform.

Clicker training and verbal markers both work well for effective communication. The dog will set about to perform the behavior that will make the trainer “click” or mark their behavior knowing that it will be followed by a treat. The behavior that you reward will be strengthened and the likelihood of the dog performing the behavior will increase. You are engaging with them in a conversation about how they can make rewards happen. Clicker/marker training is an effective way to communicate which behaviors you want them to repeat as both these techniques help to create a meaningful dialogue between you and your dog.

Please comment your personal stories below on how you have used clicker training effectively as a form of communication! I love hearing about others training successes and remember to subscribe to my blog!

Don’t Try to Fit a Square Peg into a Round Hole

If a dog does not enjoy their job, they won’t be motivated to do it. Dogs need to be passionate about their work in order to be motivated. If they do not enjoy the job they are doing, then they will just go through the motions because they were told to, rather than because they want to. Their breed also cannot necessary determine the type of work they will enjoy or the type of motivation that they need. Find the things that your dog enjoys doing and expand on the action, this will motivate them to work.

Originally, I wanted to be able to do agility courses with Odin because of the association between border collies and their agility/speed, however I quickly discovered that he does not like the feeling of strange materials under his feet. He was not motivated to go through the course because of his dislike for the way plastic/wooden ramps and teeter totters felt on his feet. So, agility would not be a good job for him and he would not have been motivated to work.

Finding the right type of motivation means learning how to read your dog. Rather than forcing them into a job, work towards finding something that they enjoy and let that joy motivate them to work. By watching their movements and facial expressions, you can determine what draws your dog’s attention the most.

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Playing fetch is one of Odin’s favorite jobs. He is able to focus his energy on the ball. The amount of enjoyment he gets from being focused during fetch led me to explore rally obedience which relies heavily on focus/attention work. There are no platforms or ramps to deter Odin from being motivated to work, and rally course work plays on his passion for focusing. During rally, he focuses his attention on me, my movements, and what I am asking him to do. By the end of the course he is more tired from completing his job then he is after a three-mile run. He is mentally satisfied by the work he is doing and enjoys doing the work. He has started to apply his rally obedience and focus work during walks, looking to me for direction, rather than focusing on the environment around him. Odin’s face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning whenever he sees a tennis ball or is working his way through a rally course.

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Don’t try and force your dog into doing a job they do not like or enjoy. Anxiety and fear may build up if they are forced into a job they do not like. Let their individual traits and interests lead you towards finding the right job and motivators for them. Some dogs will enjoy playing fetch, others may find enjoyment using their nose or doing focus work. Play to your dog’s strengths and interests; this will lead to them living a happy, fulfilling life.

Please comment below on some of the things that motivate your dog or some of the jobs they enjoying doing! Puppy tax (a photo of your pup) is also greatly encouraged!

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

A tired dog is a good dog. This is a quote that every dog owner knows and has said at least once in their life. However, how do you tire out a dog that was bred for their intelligence and working potential when you don’t have a farm? This was a question I was contemplating prior to bringing home my Border Collie puppy, Odin. Border Collies are known to be high energy and can get neurotic when they are not given an outlet.

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So, how do you tire out and mentally satisfy a dog that was bred for their work ethic in suburbia when having sheep in your backyard is not really an option? While researching online, I was unable to find valuable information on how to raise a working, highly intelligent, highly active dog in suburbia. The thing that I have been able to consistently find is that they need a mentally stimulating job in addition to exercise to live a happy, fulfilling life.

As I am writing this post, my now 9 month old Odin is getting up from his post-fetch nap. He is an avid fetcher and will intensely play for 30 minutes before I have to pry the tennis ball from him and drag him home from the park. Now that he is up, I will need to provide him with a job that will provide him with the necessary stimulation.

Motivation, effective communication and determination were words that I had always used to describe my professional self. However while training Odin, I discovered they were directly relatable to effective dog training. Finding the right job starts with finding the right type of motivation. Some dogs are food motivated and others toys. Some like nose-work, fetch, or hiking.

Once a motivation is found, communication techniques become very important between handlers and their dogs. New studies and techniques around communicating effectively with your dog are popping up every day. How do you know which is right for your dog? What is the science behind these techniques?

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Finally, determination to continue a working dogs (or any type of dogs) training is essential to your dogs health and your sanity. Training a working dog is a never ending job. If left to their own devices, they can become neurotic and make destroying your shoes their new job. I have personally encountered this neurotic behavior, especially on days when it is hard to get outside. Just look the handful of destroyed dog toys that litter my floor, or the holes he dug in my backyard, or ask my cats who get annoyed by being herded when Odin gets bored.

Training Odin has become my passion and I hope to inspire and motivate others with this blog. In this blog, I am going to explore different motivations, communication techniques, and how to keep up your dog training stamina long term so you do not lose your determination on focusing on their well being.