Communicating with Dogs

Fundamentally, dog training is about communication. From the human perspective the handler is communicating to the dog what behaviors are correct, desired, or preferred in what circumstances and what behaviours are undesirable. From the canine perspective the handler must learn what motivates the dog if the optimum result is desired.

A successful handler must also understand the communication that the dog sends to the handler. The dog can signal that he is unsure, confused, nervous, happy, excited, and so on. The emotional state of the dog is an important consideration in directing the training, as a dog that is stressed or distracted will not learn efficiently.

According to Learning Theory there are four important messages that the handler can send the dog:

Reward or release marker Correct behavior. You have earned a reward. For example, “Free” or “Okay” followed by a reward. Keep going signal Correct behavior. Continue and you will earn a reward. For example, “Good” or “Come on”. No reward marker Incorrect behavior. Try something else. For example, “Uh-uh” or “Try again”. Punishment marker Incorrect behavior. You have earned punishment. For example, “No” or more specific commands like “off,” “out,” or “leave it.”

Using consistent signals or words for these messages enables the dog to understand them more quickly. If the handler sometimes says “good” as a reward marker and sometimes as a keep going signal, it is difficult for the dog to know when he has earned a reward.

It is important to note that the dog’s reward is not the same as the reward marker. The reward marker is a signal that tell the dog that he has earned the reward. Many novice dog owners make the mistake of using effusive verbal praise as both a reward marker and a reward, which can confuse dog and owner.

Rewards can be praise, treats, play, or anything that the dog finds rewarding. Failure to reward after the reward marker diminishes the value of the reward marker and makes training more difficult.

These four messages do not have to be communicated with words, and nonverbal signals are often used. In particular, mechanical clickers are frequently used for the reward marker. Hand signals and body language also play an important part in learning for dogs. The meanings of the four signals are taught to the dog through repetition, so that he may form an association by classical conditioning. For example, if the handler consistently gives the dog a reward marker immediately before he gives the dog a food treat, the dog soon will learn to associate the reward marker with receiving something pleasant (clicker trainers call forming this association “charging up” the clicker). Likewise, if the dog is always given a punishment marker before he is scolded or put outside for bad behaviour, he will soon learn to associate the punishment marker with the punishment itself.

Dogs usually do not generalize commands easily; that is, a dog who has learned a command in a particular location and situation may not immediately recognize the command to other situations. A dog who knows how to “down” in the living room may suffer genuine confusion if asked to “down” at the park or in the car. The command will need to be retaught in each new situation, though it may be substantially easier after being taught at home where there are fewer distractions. This is sometimes called “cross-contextualization,” meaning the dog has to apply what’s been learned to many different contexts.