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Message Received!

By Suzanne Clothier

Professional trainers must be effective in how they communicate with both humans and dogs, as well as be able to successfully identify the preferred communication style in individuals © Can Stock Photo/helga1981

At the heart of any relationship is communication. On so many levels, how effectively we communicate plays a huge role in the quality, tenor and overall success of a relationship. As psychologist and family therapist pioneer Virginia Satir (1998) states: “Communication is to . . . relationships . . . as breathing is to life.”

As a trainer, my goal is to find the communication approach that serves the human, the dog, and the relationship. I need to recognize what works well for that specific team, and I need to know how, where, when and why communication becomes ineffective.

When working with clients and their dogs, part of our job is helping them learn how to have effective conversations. Satir (1998) also notes that “[e]ffective communication can be both taught and learned. We were not born with the way we communicate. We learned it, mostly through modeling, in ways no one even knew or intended.”

In trying to help handlers and dogs succeed, dog trainers often have a lot of rules: “Never repeat a cue,” “Use a high pitched happy voice,” “Never say no,” “Speak sternly from your core,” “Don’t talk much – just provide cues,” and so on. Inevitably, at the heart of the rule, is a genuine desire to help people and dogs communicate better. But, as with many rules, the intent can get lost in the strict application.

Whenever I encounter a “rule” that says a handler should or should not do X, Y or Z, my first question is always, “Why?” Sometimes, the rule is applied without need, and may even get in the way of effective communication.
Consider the dog and handler, not a rule of thumb. How do you know if communication is effective? It:
• Is sustainable – a natural fit with the dog and handler preferences.
• Gets results – you get the response you’re looking for.
• Supports the relationship – good communication is mutually rewarding.

Teach handlers how to be congruent and coherent, and to do so in a way that is natural for them. A laconic handler may learn how to be more intense and generous with praise but asking them to speak in a high squeaky voice is unlikely to be sustainable. The “high squeaky voice” rule is meant to provide the dog with more motivating, stimulating auditory input that – in theory – will excite the dog in a positive way. This may or may not be true for that dog, and even if it is, the handler has to be able (and willing) to sustain that behavior. This does not mean that learning new ways to communicate will be effortless. It takes practice and work.

Trainers can gauge the efficacy of their chosen communication method by the dog’s responses; quality of the interaction is key © Can Stock Photo/IgorKovalchuk

Communication Styles
Sometimes, there is a simple mismatch of preferences. One of my students, Daniel, had a brilliant Siberian husky, Loki. Daniel is a soft-spoken and articulate seller of antique books, so he naturally relied on words, using verbal cues for his dogs. By contrast, Loki was not particularly auditory, but he was strongly visual. When Loki was focused on visual input, Daniel’s soft-spoken cues simply did not register. Some trainers blamed the dog (“You know how Siberians are!”) while others blamed Daniel’s timing or inadequate rate of reinforcement or insufficiently motivating food rewards. The truth? It was a simple communication mismatch. When Daniel added visual signals to his verbal cues, Loki was cheerfully responsive and cooperative. Finding the solution here was just a matter of watching the man and his dog, seeing what was natural for them, and finding a mutually agreeable communication style.

Whatever rules you may impose on your clients and their dogs (or on yourself!), it can be helpful to step back, re-examine the intent of the rule, and observe what’s happening. I’m interested in sustainable,
natural communications that are effective. How do we know? We ask the dog. His responses will tell us if there is:
• Clarity – can the dog understand what the handler intends to communicate? If not, why not? Sensory processing? Amplitude or magnitude of cue? Timing?
• Salience – even if the dog understands, is the communication meaningful? If not, why not? What would increase salience? Is there something else more salient in the situation?
• Congruence – is there agreement between the handler’s cues, gestures and body language?

Communication is transactional and we are always both sender and receiver. Let’s say that I am talking about my day to my husband – how the line at the bank was crazy, and I saw a coyote in Tim’s pasture, and I did get those cookies for later, and by the way would you hand me the ketchup… If I do end up with the ketchup, my communication worked. Although the request was buried in the ongoing story, if John is attentive, if he cares about cooperating with me, if what I say is congruent, then it’s easy for him to hear what I’ve asked.

But, if he is busy checking his email or wondering how to fix the leak in the sink, not really listening, and if I wasn’t really paying attention to his response and just babbling to suit my own needs, I might be surprised by the lack of response. I would have to back up and isolate the request, “Would you please hand me the ketchup?” If that didn’t work, I’d clarify further and say nothing more than a clear, direct “Ketchup. Please!” I might also just clap and then point and then smile when I finally get my ketchup.

Paying Attention
Please note successful communication hinges on the quality of the interaction between two beings. Clarity exists when John is listening attentively to me; it is missing when he’s checking his email instead. Salience flies out the window if he’s soaking in a hot bath with no intention of retrieving the ketchup on the kitchen counter. Congruence is missing when I point out the window to the bird feeder while asking for the ketchup on the pantry shelf in another room. Where connection and attentiveness exist, when both are interested in the conversation, complexity and nuance are possible. Where there is disconnect, clarity and congruity become paramount.
For my clients, I am interested in discovering the specific style that suits that handler and dog. There is no one ideal way to be successful. Trainers face the challenge of figuring out the dog’s preferences as well as the handler’s, and then trying to find common ground between the two. If we forget the handler’s needs as a receiver, we can unintentionally further complicate things. For one person, I have to communicate in this clear, direct fashion: “Sally, put your left hand here. Hold it. Count to 3, then let go.” For another person, I can say, “Gertrude, what I think might work well for you and your dog is this: try holding your left hand closer to the handle, and count to 3 before you let go of the leash.” Same communication. Different style of communication. It all depends on Sally and Gertrude.

Dogs are no different. Some need very spare, precise information; like their human counterparts, they can get lost in a stream of babble. Other dogs learn to tune out all but the salient information. How do you know if the handler’s style is helping or hindering effective communication? Ask the dog.

Smart Dog
One memorable dog I worked with could parse the word DOWN out of any sentence at almost any time. He was calm and relaxed, unstressed but – as his handler perceived it – prone to randomly collapsing. She was understandably very concerned. His vet check had shown no abnormalities. “He just lays down for no reason at all, at the weirdest times.”

When we met, the dog was standing between us on a loose leash, not on cue but just hanging out, watching some birds across the yard. We chitchatted a bit, and then she said, “I wanted to bring him down to you, to see if you can see something we’re missing.” When she said down, he laid down. Promptly. Precisely. Calmly.

I wasn’t sure her words and his behavior were related events. She had been talking to me, not addressing the dog. He had appeared quite engaged in watching the birds. So we chatted some more. This time, I deliberately asked questions that would result in her using the word down in the normal course of conversation. And indeed, every time she said it (such as ”I put my keys down for a moment…”), the dog dropped.

Brilliant dog. Why did he set himself this task? Who knows? It was fascinating to see. Once the handler got past the “rule” that says dogs cannot do what her dog did effortlessly, she was amazed by the degree to which he remained tuned to her at all times. Of course, Joe Q. Public handlers have experienced this when an intensely salient word (such as walk or ball or cookie) appears in a conversation and their dog leaps up, hopeful and excited. Thus, we all learn to spell some words—and dogs learn to recognize the spelled words too!

We are most effective and humane when, first and foremost, we consider the specific handler/dog team before us. What do they need to be successful? How do they process sensory input? What signals and what style of communication work best for them as a team? What is sustainable for both? We help both people and dogs when we educate them on how rich, complex and rewarding good communication can be, and what that means in any given moment for that animal and for that person.

Schwab, J., Baldwin, M., Gerber, J., Gomori, M., & Satir, V. (1989). The Satir Approach to Communication: A Workshop Manual. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2020, pp.24-26. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
Suzanne Clothier ( has been working with animals professionally since 1977. Currently based in St. Johnsville, New York, she is well respected internationally for her holistic Relationship Centered Training™ approach to dogs and the people that love them. Her background includes training, instruction, behavior modification, kennel management, temperament assessment, physical assessment and conditioning, early puppy development, class curriculum development, obedience, agility, Search and Rescue, conformation, breeding and more. Since 1991, she has taught workshops and seminars on a broad range of topics throughout the United States and internationally for a wide variety of groups from training clubs to international conferences in 11 countries. An award-winning author of multiple books and DVDs, her book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs (2002) has received widespread praise from every corner of the dog world, including twice being included in the Wall Street Journal’s list of Top 5 Dog Books. She has served on the American Humane Association’s Task Force for Humane Training, the AKC Agility Advisory board, and is currently a consultant for Frankie & Andy’s Place, a senior dog sanctuary in Georgia. She has also developed multiple assessment tools such as CARAT™ and RAT™ (Relationship Assessment Tool), as well as puppy and adult dog tests. These tools have been used by guide and service dog organizations, therapy dog groups, AAIA organizations, shelters and rescue groups, and trainers. In her work as a consultant to guide dog schools, her Enriched Puppy Protocol™ served as the structure for the updating of their puppy raising programs. Since 2007, more than 10,000 puppies have been raised in programs built around The Enriched Puppy Protocol™. Meanwhile, with fellow trainer Cindy Knowlton, she developed CCC: Connection, Cooperation & Control™, a puzzle-based program that builds joyful relationships between handlers and dogs. Her newest program, FAT – Functional Assessment Tracking™, helps caretakers assess a dog’s well-being day-to-day as reflected in physiological, cognitive and social aspects.

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