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Human-dog communication

One of the last experiences before the lockdown, has been quite a surprise. Not a good one*. Paulina asked me for a two day conference, and we agreed about “human-dog communication” as a topic.

I’ve been studying the human role in a dog’s life for years, and I was eager to share my experience and my understanding. I was also thrilled about the new scientific studies on how dogs really understand humans, and especially human’s voice. It was like all of the sudden the puzzle started to show the picture

I expected to see: dogs are highly sensitive to human voice, and can actually understand much more than we think.

Remember clicker trainers telling you to shut up when you are using a clicker? I’ve always hated that bit. My voice is such a powerful tool in the communication with a dog, why shouldn’t I use it at its best? In my experience a dog can rely and react to human voice more than to any marker or treat/toy.
So, here I am, in front of the audience, ready to share all the information I have, both from the scientific researches and my practice and personal studies. The topic is amazing, and the outcomes are so meaningful.

What can possibly go wrong?
When I was at the primary school, my teacher asked us to find the Urals on a map. No one of us could reach the goal. The Urals were like unicorns, apparently: we all know what’s an unicorn, no one has ever seen one. So, she came to help. See, there were the Urals. Why no one of us was able to find them? Instead of the world URALS, the mountain range was indicated as:

Our eyes were unable to see the word, because it was written in an unexpected way.
That’s my first mistake.

As I started talking about human-dog communication, I took for granted that there is a difference between training and social communication.

During training we select a behavior, and we give informations (procedures) and reinforcements to increase the chance to make the dog repeat that behavior.
I am teaching Sonne to high five. I keep a treat in my hand, she tries to get it using her mouth, it doesn’t work, she tries to open the hand with the paw, lifts her paw, it works, she gets the treat. When she associates lifting the paw with receiving the treat, she has learned to lift the paw to get a treat.
This is training.

dog training and social communication

What is this dog communicating to the person who hold the leash, and to the person taking the picture?

To show the difference between training and social communication I chose to show videos of different dogs on leash.

In the first video, it was all about training. The trainer was teaching the owner to focus on “good” behaviors and reinforce the sit, the watch me, the dog on the side, with treats. The dog was motivated by the food, and doing what expected.

In the second video, the dog was in an higher level of stress. The malinois was using a social communication to increase distance towards a stranger (the trainer), directing signals to the owner and the trainer. His signals were ignored, and the trainer was focusing only on the “good” behaviors that the owner was supposed to reinforce.

The dog was using a social communication to increase distance from the stranger
Both the trainer and the owner were ignoring the social communication and focusing on their own expectation about the dog behavior.
From the training perspective, everything was fine. You ignore the “wrong” behavior, you reinforce the “right” behavior.
From the social communication perspective, everything was wrong, or, at least, unfair. You are ignoring the dog communication, and you are not communicating with the dog on a social level.
This is the Urals.
This is something that is so difficult to see.
We’ve been conditioned for decades to shape the dog behavior through reinforcements (or through punishments and correction), that at some points, social communication was lost. If not lost, used in a manipulative way: we say “good dog!” just to get what we want.
When I am pointing at communication, I can feel that for someone it is really difficult to see it.
how to communicate with my dog
My goal was to make people switch from a training attitude towards a social communication attitude, and I just forgot that it took me years to move away from an “all training” mode. I can now switch from one mental state to the other so easily that I simply forgot how long it took me to become fully aware of the two different levels.
The third video with a dog on leash was again about training. There were two dogs on leash, one of them was a reactive dog (it means a dog that display aggressive behaviors towards another dog when on leash). Same old stuff about sit-watch me, stay on my side when I walk.
What I found interesting in this video is at some point the social communication popped out. The dog was allowed to reach a tree, and urine mark. What was disturbing, to me, was that the man holding the leash was not reacting to a dog communication. The man was leading the dog to the tree. Why? Why can’t you just listen to the dog, why can’t you let the dog decide a different strategy than threatening? (Scent communication in this case, which is just great). Training, control. This is NOT social communication.
Social communication implies that the sender emits a behavior, that communicates to the receiver information about the individual (sex, age, emotional state, motivations...). As a sender, my goal is to talk about me, not to make you do something because I want and I need it.

Think of a dog competing for a toy.

Dog B has a toy, dog A wants the toy. Dog A, is the sender. A is communicating to B “I want the toy”.
A is not teaching B to leave the toy.
A is not reinforcing B for leaving the toy (no way!).
A is just saying to B “I want the toy”.
What B will do, depends on how B is decoding the information, the motivation of B to keep the toy, the emotional state of B, and so on. It depends on B, not A.

what toys for my dogs

"I want the toy"

Let’s go back to the dog on leash. If the dog is communicating a motivation to move towards a tree to urine mark, we can follow. We don’t have to (but it is kind and useful to do it), but we can use that information and change our plans, following the dog on leash to the tree and stopping there until the dog finishes urine marking.
This is communication, not training.

Leading the dog is training, not communication.

My second mistake is about human’s expectations during a seminar or a conference. But, in this case, I can’t fix it.
I do not give instructions. I think it is insane to follow a standard procedure when we are dealing with living creatures that have emotions, motivations, personalities, needs. Informations are a key tool to open our mind to new perspectives, to improve not only our knowledge but our awareness. Informations really are like seeds. Some will grow into a new life. Some will die. Some will stay quiescent for months or years, and at some point come back to life.
*This really is unfair, I’ve met beautiful people who were willing to share, but of course our brain reacts in a stronger way to the negative. I’ve decided time ago to use the negative as a good source of information to improve. So, thanks for the criticism. I only wish next time people will feel free to communicate with me during the seminar, and not after, when I can’t do anything to make it better.

Text and article photos Alexa Capra 30 march 2020

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