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Training Tips: Communicating With Your Dog

by Rita and Dan Comden

When I evaluate a team, I look for a responsive dog. To get a responsive dog you must use eye contact, physical control and voice commands. Most dogs hear better than humans, so unless he is deaf there is no need to shout. Whether you use English, German or Swahili, be consistent with the word for the action. (Before you get too exotic, remember sometimes we have to leave our dog in another's control). Consistency means that you don't use different or multiple commands for the same action. It also means that you give the command once, and if it's not obeyed, make the dog do the action. During initial training, it's better to not give a command that you aren't willing to enforce. Keep voice commands simple, using one or two word commands, then follow through physically, showing the dog what you want him to do.

Caption: Poul and Shocka at work Image-Poul and Shocka

I find it helpful to use the dog's name first for any forward or moving commands, but use only the word without the name for any negative or stopping commands. For example: Fido, COME; Fido, HEEL; Fido, UP.

SIT, DOWN, STAY, QUIET, etc. are stopping or negative commands. For an example, let's use the DOWN-STAY command. Say the command once, wait a second for the dog to act, if he doesn't, physically place him in the down position. Immediately say GOOD DOG, GOOD DOWN, in a happy, pleasant voice, reinforcing the word with the action. This all should take about 3 seconds. If you want him to stay, say STAY, placing your hand in front of his face and walk away a few paces. Wait at least 30 seconds, return to dog and say GOOD DOG, GOOD STAY. Gradually lengthen the time of STAY with you in view to 15 minutes. Then you can start working on short out of view STAYS, where you can be downwind and see your dog. Whenever a dog breaks a command, tell him BAD DOG, go to him, place him in position, exactly where he was and say STAY.

Watch him and get back to him before he breaks and then praise with GOOD DOG, GOOD DOWN-STAY. The dog wants to please you, so always finish an exercise on a positive note.

There are dozens of books on obedience training and different theories for every trainer in the world. Watch other teams and pick what works best for you and is a good match to you and your dog's personalities. There's no substitute for working with an experienced trainer who can note subtleties and cues about how the dog and handler are working and learning together. Some people are just better trainers than others, having a feel for the human-animal bond that can't easily be explained or taught to others. Take advantage of their insight and experience if you're having difficulty with a particular task.

A release word is important to learn and use so the dog knows when he is finished working. As in all the words in the dog's vocabulary, use one that doesn't sound like anything else. You can use: FINISH, ALL DONE, BREAK, or I like FREE DOG, rather than OKAY, which we use a lot in talking with other people.

Besides the basic commands such as: SIT, DOWN, STAY, COME, SPEAK, etc., build a vocabulary with your canine partner. Here are a few examples:

OUT or DROP: To release whatever is in their mouth
STAND: For grooming or examination
OFF: To get off or out of a vehicle or whatever
CLIMB: Going up a steep hill, stairs, ladder
OVER: Going completely over an obstacle
WAIT or CLOSE: To control distance without a full recall
THROUGH or CRAWL: Going under obstacles or through a tunnel
LEAVE IT: To ignore other animals or smells
OUTSIDE/INSIDE: In or out of a house or kennel

Research has indicated that an intelligent dog can develop a vocabulary well over 50 words. Don't sell your dog short!

Now that we know how to use verbal commands, physical association and praise to communicate with your dog, let's continue with a searching vocabulary.

The most important thing your dog will ever do is to find a missing person. Give him words to associate with each discipline of searching:

Always remember to reinforce the word after the command has been completed and give lots of praise, GOOD DOG and reward. These are ideas, not necessarily the words you will want to use. Whatever you use, be consistent with the same word. Realize your dog's intelligence and the fact that she can understand the words with the action.

Give him words for everyday things, such as: SWIM, SHAKE-OFF, FETCH, DINNER, NO BEGGING, DRINK, GO-TO-BED, etc. Have fun, too.

Find reasons to GOOD DOG and praise your dog and you will have an attentive, hard working partner.

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Text and photos copyright Dan Comden, 1995-2004 Dan Comden
Seattle, WA U.S.A.
Email -- dan*@* (remove the asterisks around the "@" symbol)