COMMUNICATING CLEARLY WITH OUR DOGS
Dogs are very visual when it comes to communicating with us. They tend to respond to our visual cues very strongly, especially in cases where their training was started with heavy visual prompts from us. For example, if you teach a dog to sit using a food lure, the dog is going to be responsive to that luring body language (hand sweeping up and arm bending) even after you have put it on a verbal cue (the word sit). What this means to us in terms of training and handling show dogs is that we have to be extremely thoughtful about our own body language when showing our dogs. In my experience, many people teach their dogs using luring, which is a great way to get behaviors started, but it is important to get off the food lure and onto a verbal cue (just saying the word) as soon as possible. The problem arises when people lure for too long or simply don’t complete the process of transitioning the dog from a hand signal or lure to a verbal cue.
Consider this. You taught your puppy to sit as their first behavior. This is not unreasonable as sit is a valuable life skill behavior for a dog to have. However, keep in the mind that the first behavior your teach your dog will likely become their “default” behavior. The default behavior is the behavior that the dog will offer you either when they want something or aren’t sure what else to do. So, you taught this puppy to sit using a food lure which transitioned to a hand signal. Fast forward a year and you are training your show dog to free stack. When you put your hands with the bait low your dog steps toward the bait. Your natural reaction is to pull the food up and away from the dog and your dog sits. I see this ALL the time. The hand coming up is a clear signal to the dog to sit, so the dog sits. The owner had a completely different idea in mind and gets frustrated and doesn’t understand why their dog keeps sitting, but to the dog it is perfectly clear that he is being signaled to sit. If you are in the show ring and either one of you, you or your dog has any performance anxiety this is going to occur in the ring. Before getting frustrated think about if your dog is simply doing what you have previously trained him to do. By the way, I teach my show dogs to sit and lie down and do a variety of other behaviors on cue, however, I teach stand first as their default behavior.
The same is true of gaiting. I frequently work with people who are training their show dogs who they have already done a lot of other training with. Perhaps they taught their dog to heel or walk on a loose leash and now want to work on show gaiting. If they keep their left arm firmly attached to their side with their arm bent and their hand on their stomach at waist level like they do when heeling, the dog is going to assume you want him to heel and look at you, not gait out in front of you. I remember teaching a workshop where a couple of the attendees had dogs that they were training for French ring. French ring requires dogs to perform “contact heeling” where the dog is actually touching the handler while heeling. Generally people have their left hand down and outside the dog’s head with the arm straight and the dog walking in between the handler and the handler’s left hand. Because the handler was not used to conformation it was natural for her to drop her hand back to that heeling position. The dog would start to understand the show gaiting, but every time her hand would slip into that position the dog would immediately slip back into heel position. The dog wasn’t wrong! He was actually doing a really good job of accommodating his owner. It was up to her to practice her own body mechanics and make sure she was giving clear information to the dog with her own body language. As long as she remembers to be aware of the placement of her left arm, the dog will understand because he is given clear information.
The take away here is that it can take practice for us to keep our body language in check and remember that what we do with our bodies will affect the behavior we get from our dogs. We need to work hard to keep our body cues in check and clear so our dogs can get it right and have success.