As I walked through my kitchen this past weekend, my beautiful Belgian Shepherd, Tiramisu, ran up to me and glanced up quickly, smiling. Then she darted across the room where she stopped, bobbed her head to the floor and looked at me expectantly. There was nothing I could do but burst into laughter. A guest in my home might have had no idea what I was laughing at, but in the middle of the afternoon my dog had just cracked me up.
You see, the spot she stopped is where we feed her. She was asking me if she could have a snack. “Hey dad, how about a little something for the black dog?” All the while she was smiling and wagging her tail. It wasn’t her usual meal time; she was just hopeful I could be convinced. She only did it once. No repeated nagging. I gave her some fussing, told her she was adorable and we continued our day. You see, I had listened to her and that was enough.
I think our dogs talk to us all the time — or at least they do if they know we are “listening.” I’m sure there are dogs who just give up because we can’t “hear” them.
Our dogs don’t “talk” with sound; they are actually visual communicators. Oh sure, they bark, but that’s not how most dog communication happens. Rather, it occurs through body postures, movements and facial expressions. It is a language that is physically expressed for the eye instead of spoken for the ear. The trick is being able to see it and understand it.
Starting the Conversation
My conversations with Tiramisu started when she was a puppy. At the time Clicker Training was a new technology for me. I had never trained a dog using Operant Conditioning so I read books about the science and techniques of Clicker Training and carefully followed the instructions.
One of the key elements of this kind of training is the need to be a good observer. In Clicker Training, when a dog performs the behaviour you want, you mark it with a clicker — but you first have to see it. So keep your eyes on the dog.
I was in the process of training a “spin,” a behaviour where Tira turns completely around in a 360 degree circle. It had taken a few days to get her to perform the behaviour in small increments. Clicker Training builds behaviours in small, achievable bits to eventually arrive at the desired finished behaviour.
On this particular day, the light bulb went off for Tira and I saw it. The look in her eyes, on her face, seemed to say, “Oh! You mean THIS?!” as she spun in place. I rewarded her with a treat and enjoyed her big smile.
I was pretty pleased with my success as a trainer and immediately asked for the behaviour again. Again, I got the same lightning fast spin in place. Click and reward. I asked a third time. Whoosh! Spin in place and click/reward. I asked a fourth time and there was a slight pause and a look, almost as if Tira were saying “Uh…we just did this, like, three times.” She spun, but more slowly this time.
When I asked a fifth time, she stared straight at me. Then, she turned away from me to examine the carpet for a few minutes. That’s when I figured it out. She was saying, “Ok, enough. You’ve bored me. I’ll be over here when you want to do something interesting.”
And we’ve been talking ever since. The flow of information in Clicker Training is two-way: I communicate with my dog via prompting, and she communicates with me via behaviour. When she is correct, I reply with a click and a reward. In a real sense it is a dialogue — a back and forth process. But our communication goes beyond teaching behaviours.
When Tira was quite young, I developed a habit with her while on our walks. She would be allowed to sniff at various spots of her choosing for a while, but then we had to move on. Instead of just dragging her along the path, I began saying “Let’s go!” before walking on. At first, this was meaningless to her, and as I walked on she was tugged along with me. After a time, she started to figure out that if she wanted to avoid the tugging, she could just come with me when she heard, “Let’s go!”
In a similar way, I trained my dog to understand “I’ll be back” as a cue. We watch TV together and I sometimes need to get up to get a drink or a snack. My intention is to come right back into the room. When Tira was small, she would leap up and follow me into the kitchen and back. After a few days of repeating “I’ll be back” before running out briefly, Tira began to get the idea that there was no need to follow me since “I’ll be back” meant I would be right back.
These are instances of what Karen Pryor calls “Informational Cues.” These are cues that do not ask for a behaviour, but instead let the dog know what to expect or what is coming next. This is just information, and we humans do it with each other all the time. In fact, most dog owners offer informational cues to their dogs even if they are unaware of it. For instance, some people will say “What do you say, buddy?” before going on a walk or “Are you hungry?” before dinner is served.
It’s no surprise our dogs are particularly gifted at understanding our cues. After all, we’ve been breeding them selectively for attentiveness to our human quirks for centuries. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that dogs have their own ways of trying to communicate with us too.
Learning to Listen
Unfortunately, as humans, we’re not very attentive to visual communication. But there are great books available by Turid Rugaas and Brenda Aloff that go into great detail about the body language and expressions of dogs. How dogs communicate with other dogs forms the basis of how they communicate with us.
But we can’t “hear” our dogs until we see them. We need to look at them attentively in order to see their behaviours and expressions enough to learn what they are trying to say. If we listen often enough, our dogs will respond by communicating with us more. If we’re not listening, they may just give up and fall “silent,” choosing not to share their thoughts with us. And that’s such a shame.
Tira and I talk even on the agility course. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been too late with my signal for her to turn — and she gives me that glance over her shoulder that says, “Sorry dad, you were WAY too late. I’m going HERE. Tough luck!” Or on those special occasions when she goes to the correct obstacle in spite of my poor signalling, and she gives me that look that says, “Yeah, dad, I know you meant this one…I got you covered this time.”
I’ve discovered that there is so much to see if we only look at our dogs and let them tell us what’s on their minds. Perhaps the greatest gift I have received so far from all of my clicker training is not just all the fun behaviours I’ve taught my dog or the fact that she’s happy and well mannered — it’s the fact that I can truly “see” my girl and understand what she says to me.
My reward is that we have conversations all the time. Tira is a wonderful, witty partner. I’m thankful to Clicker Training for allowing me access to that part of our relationship.
To read more Eric Brad articles on dogs, clicker training and agility, please visit his Life As A Human author page here.
“Tiramisu” and “Eric and Tiramisu” © Petra Wingate 2009