Hey You! Cue THIS!

Moatie is the best dog Steve DeBono Dog Trainer Austin Texas has ever known

I'm generally pretty quiet with my dogs, other than chatting with them about my day or maybe what I had for lunch.  I’ll praise them when they do something I like and direct them in some way if I need to alter their behavior.  If we're on an off-leash hike, there are days that they might never hear a word from me, yet I’m still constantly asking them for behaviors and responses. 

My silence gives me leverage.  I want the sound and tone of my voice to mean something... I couldn't give two craps whether they understand my words.  If I'm walking one way and they go the other, I'm not going to yell "COME!” at the top of my lungs.  What leverage would that give me when it's actually important for them to respond?  How is the dog supposed to know that "This time he really means it!" if my tone is always one of urgency?

My dogs and I have our little language that’s developed over time: "this way dudes," "come on boo," "take a left, guys." I might praise them for checking in with me with a happy “Hi!” I converse with them, maybe point or nod in the direction I want to go, tell them ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ ... I know they don't understand the directive "take a left."  But they do understand that I am saying, "Hey, pay attention to the way I'm going."  I generally say these phrases just about loud enough for them to hear me, dependent on the urgency.

My dogs are responding to my natural communication style, not a series of contrived verbal ‘cues.’

This week, while at the trail, I tried to take a little video of this natural way of using spontaneous English phrases and body motions.  The dogs’ responses were weak.  It did not take me long to realize that as soon as that little red record light was on, I shifted into self conscious, contrived mannerisms when relaying phrases, essentially converting them into unnatural, preplanned verbal cues.  I was a bad actor in a movie, spouting rehearsed lines.  I was no longer communicating naturally. The dogs were like, “Huh?  Why are you acting weird?”

The classic training model is you give a ‘command’ and the dog ‘responds.’  The word ‘command’ has gone out of fashion in the dog training world due to its authoritarian nature, and has mostly and rightfully been replaced with the word ‘cue.’  But essentially, what we have is a kinder, gentler model of “give a cue, get a behavior.”

Times have changed.  Dogs are being integrated into the family home much more intensely than in the past.   Training has evolved.  But, in my opinion, it’s still rooted in the past, revolving aimlessly around cue -> response (Look, I’m generalizing, ok?).

‘Communication’ is the training term de jour (along with ‘relationship’).  But most of what I see is trainers teaching behaviors, maybe talking a little bit about lip licks and general dog body language, then calling it ‘communication.’

This is not training your average person how to communicate with a dog.  This is teaching him or her how to mold and shape desirable behaviors, along with giving awareness of a few very helpful dog body language basics.  These can serve a useful purpose in achieving communication skills and are essential in dealing with most behavioral issues.  I teach every client the basic behaviors: sit-stay, down-stay, come, etc.  Of course we need to teach cues and behaviors. But these behaviors are just laying a very useful foundation that can help facilitate real communication.  If I want to help a client learn how to communicate with their dog, the last thing I want them to do is be in the mindset that in order for the dog to understand them, they need to change their natural way of being and shift into “”Cue -> Behavior” mode, even if this is just a subconscious shift.  By focusing so much attention on cued behaviors, that is essentially what we are doing.  I want to help teach people how to communicate naturally so that they can use their learned cues as a super helpful addendum to their conversation.  Teaching natural communication needs to be the priority.  We need people to stop shifting into contrivances and remain in a natural state even when giving cues.

Take a human baby. From day 1, a baby and its mother begin communicating naturally.  Eventually she teaches the baby specific ‘words’ as they get older. But she continues to communicate naturally… speaking normally, moving fluidly.  She doesn’t shift into some kind of comparable ‘cue -> behavior’ contrived mode when she is asking the child to do something.  She just does it, naturally and unconsciously. 

You don’t try to communicate to your dog, you just do, whether you mean to or not.   Whether the receiver understands you or not depends on how well you do expressing yourself, and whether or not they are paying attention.  I don’t believe that communicating through the contrived means of ‘cue -> behavior’ is the best way. All the focus on specific cued behaviors teaches people to shift from their fluid, natural communication style to contrived mannerisms in order for their dog to understand.  99% of the waking day your dog is watching, learning, and being prompted by your natural mannerisms.  But suddenly, when we want them to do something, we shift from this sincere, natural communication style to one that is contrived, self conscious and often fairly awkward.  Why would we do that?  The contrivance does not make us more “like dogs” and easier to read.  It just makes us weird.

Every day I see people communicating naturally and wonderfully at the trail.  I don’t know how they acquired the skills, but they have them.  Most likely, they found their own way.  Perhaps facilitated by some previous training, perhaps not.  I had one client some time ago whose dog, Becca, responded amazingly well to him.  Probably the best I’d ever seen.  The client insisted, in all seriousness, that Becca knew English.  He’d ask her yes/no questions, and he believed she would respond with blinking or some other signal.  This meant he was also very importantly listening for Becca’s answers.  Of course Becca did not really know English. But the client’s belief that she did paved the way for them to develop this very natural way of talking with one another.  She asked questions and waited for answers.  Usually, I would discourage a client from thinking that “dogs know English” because they generally are just using English words in terms of commands/cues.  But this client was rockin’ English differently, using it naturally, like he might talk to you or me.  I did not try to tell him that he was wrong.  Why would I?  He was communicating wonderfully.  He hadn’t even called me for behavioral help … he just wanted to learn how to teach Becca a few tricks.

So I will continue to teach my clients how to mold and shape behaviors using contrived cues as part of a training regimen.  However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the unintended damage it might cause in terms of the owner’s psychological view towards communicating.  I must tailor my training towards natural communication if I truly want clients to achieve the vision of a good relationship that I have in my head.