Conveying Commands To A Dog

We hope that eventually our dog will do what we want, when we want. We must then find some means of conveying our wishes to the dog in the form of words of command and/or hand signals. A common mistake is to think that a dog knows the meaning of every word said to him. A dog does not understand words at all, in the sense that we know them. He understands certain sounds — probably a great number of different sounds — but they are only sounds, not words, to him. It does not matter whether you tell a dog to lie down by whistling to him or by saying Down, Flat, Lie, or even Sit or Stand. What does matter is that you always say the same thing, or rather make the same sound, for each exercise.

As his training advances, your dog is going to have to become acquainted with quite a large number of different commands, so make your commands as clear and short as possible. He will have to learn, for instance, that Down means down and Sit means sit, and it is a waste of breath and very muddling to the dog to say ‘Sit down there, old boy’, which is the sort of thing one so often hears.

Having decided what command you are going to use, the next thing is to make the dog associate each command with the particular exercise. To do so we go back to correction and reward. We give the command, for example Sit, correct the dog by forcing him (gently at first) into a sitting position, and when he is there (even if we have forced him into the position) praise him enthusiastically. By this method a dog of average intelligence very soon realizes the meaning of the word Sit and learns that if he sits promptly he will be praised, but if he does not, he will be corrected (quite severely when you are sure he knows what you mean). It is obvious, therefore, that by far the easiest and most pleasant course for the dog to take is to sit when he is told. Eventually, in the trained dog, no correction or reward is necessary.

To emphasize your words of command you must vary your tone of voice. This is a most important point in training and one which many have difficulty in mastering. A dog which knows and understands his owner can be scolded, praised, steadied or excited, all by the tone of voice — and by this I don’t mean volume. It is possible to scold a dog very effectively in a whisper, as most experienced trainers who work dogs in public are well aware. Much of the bawling and shouting one hears in competitions is quite unnecessary, and in the eyes of the general public, a very bad advertisement for training. Dogs have much better hearing than humans, and a good shepherd can work a dog a mile or more away with a great deal less noise than some obedience handlers when the dog is about three metres away. People who get into the habit of shouting cannot raise their voices in an emergency. If one shouts in a scolding tone to a dog which is not usually shouted at, I lc will realize without any doubt that he is doing the wrong thing, and may stop immediately.

Always use a harsh tone of voice in conjunction with your corrections, and a kind, encouraging tone with your rewards. The dog should then soon understand whether he is doing the right or wrong thing by the tone of voice alone. The harsh tone replaces t he growl of the dominant member of the pack or of the dam w hen the puppies were in the nest. We are therefore strengthening our association of ideas by using the dog’s natural instinct to react to this sort of noise.

Right from the start the dog should learn to associate a certain word (I use ‘No’) with doing the wrong thing. The degree of harshness should be varied according to whether he is being deliberately disobedient or simply does not yet understand what you want him to do. In the same way you can use a certain word or words, such as ‘Good dog’, in a kind tone every time you fuss or praise the dog when he does the right thing. In time it will be possible to praise him without touching him and when he is some distance from you.

And now we come to the commands of ‘aids’ which appeal to the dog’s sense of sight, one of the few senses, if not the only one, in which some dogs are inferior to ourselves. You must not, however, underestimate his powers of sight, which can be a great help in training, and it is really quite amazing how slight is the movement of the hand or body to which a dog can be taught to respond. A good example of this is to be found in stage dogs, which are supposed to add, subtract, tell the time, and so on by barking a number of times. All they do in fact is to bark and stop barking on given signals which the audience does not notice — a movement of the head, putting the hand in a pocket, taking it out again, etc., etc. Experienced and clever handlers in obedience competitions sometimes adopt similar methods to get their dogs that little bit closer. Equally experienced judges usually spot it and take marks of for ‘extra commands’.

There are certain movements to which the average dog will respond naturally, and the fullest possible use should be made of them in training. Perhaps the most important is the use of the hand. If your dog is fond of you and you hold out your hand he should come to it. This natural tendency is going to be of great value to you and you must never at any time do anything to kill your dog’s trust in your hand.

If hand signals are used in conjunction with your words of command you will be making your commands doubly clear to the dog. If he is not quite sure of either (as he will not be to begin with) the two combined may make it easier for him. As his training advances, either the word of command or the signal can be dropped.

Most trainers drop the signals and keep the words of command. Others combine the two, using signals on the Distant Control exercise and words on the others. Some drop the words of command entirely and work their dogs, very successfully, solely by hand signals.

The use of hand signals in conjunction with words of command can be very useful in handling a working dog, and is practised by by the great majority of gun-dog handlers and shepherds in everyday work. Sheepdog trial handlers, however, do not use them at all as, in order to respond to them, the dog must take his eyes off his sheep, a serious ‘crime’ in trials.

If you decide to use hand signals the important point to remember is to make them clear — and do not forget that a dog sees you from exactly the opposite angle from which you see him; he has to look up whilst you look down.

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