Clear and Consistent Communications with Dogs

Thriving Canine Curious PuppyEffectively communicating from human being to human being continuously proves to be a tricky thing to accomplish. Think about how many misunderstandings take place between managers and employees, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and friends on a daily basis. In this context, it is clear to see why so many people are having a hard time communicating with their dogs and getting the results they are looking for. Let's not forget that dogs don't speak our language; they are simply learning to associate certain phonetic sounds, body language and/or gestures with certain behaviors and expectations. For this reason, it is really important to be clear and consistent when communicating with our dogs so that we can get the consistent behavior we are looking for.


Dog training is like putting together a stack of building blocks.  In order to stack the building blocks high and stable, you must first lay down a strong foundation. A critical component of that foundation is a strong communication system where the dog understands:

  • What you are saying  (clarity)
  • That what you are saying always means the same thing regardless of your mood, day of the week or extenuating circumstances (consistency)

If dogs can count on these 2 elements, they can better understand what you are looking for and will be more apt to deliver. If they are confused and unsure of what you mean, they may offer the wrong behavior or simply not respond at all. This is often misinterpreted as being "stubborn". If this miscommunication continues without clarification, the dog may begin to ignore cues because they simply make no sense. If this "stubbornness" is repeatedly and unclearly punished, the dog my become hard to train due to fear of making a mistake. Clear communication is paramount for maintaining enthusiasm and reliability.


When I refer to the word clear in reference to communicating with dogs, I don't mean enunciation (although that doesn't hurt). Being clear with a dog means teaching him through association, conditioning and repetition exactly what behavior corresponds to which vocal cues, hand signals and/or other cues. Think back to when you first started to read words like apple. There were most likely pictures involved to help you associate as well as a breakdown of the word by sound. Teaching a dog what sit means is very similar. Now, a dog can't intellectually look at a picture of a dog sitting and correlate the two, but luring or placing a dog into position so that he can associate the activity to the sound of the word sit will condition him to put two and two together...the action of sitting coupled with the sound s-i-t will start to make sense to him. Repeating this correct behavior over and over will get you more reliability.  And, since we're on the subject of clarity, it's not limited to just clear vocal cues. Some choose to communicate using hand signals.  If this is the case, it is still very important to train the dog exactly what hand signals correspond to what desired behavior. This is not a discussion on training techniques but luring and physical placement are 2 ways to go about getting the behavior you want and then associating hand signals to correspond. Once a dog understands which hand signal is the cue for a particular behavior, it is really important to communicate that signal clearly. 

Here is an example: Pardon the extreme A/B comparison but you'll see the point I'm trying to make.

Let's assume you have trained your dog to sit using a hand signal that looks like an open-handed arm curl. (Lift your right hand about one foot from a 9:00 arm position to an 11:00 arm position bending at the elbow with a flat hand where your palm is facing the sky.) Let's say you have trained him this command by standing directly in front of him with a strong posture and a slightly open stance. You are very deliberate, precise and the dog, in turn, responds beautifully and consistently.  Now let's assume that one day you are feeling very lazy and you're lounging on the couch. You want your dog to sit from across the room but you don't want to get off the sofa. You decide to stay laying down and wave your left hand in the air motioning for him to sit. In this example do you expect to get the same reliable sit from your dog? He probably doesn't understand what you want because you're not being very clear. Now, if you get off the couch and assume the position he's used to and deliver the hand signal clearly, the dog is much more likely to understand and deliver. This is also a good example of why teaching a dog a verbal cue and a hand signal can be handy. This extreme example shows that clearly communicating will get you the behavior you are looking for much more often.

Clarity is not only a fair way to communicate with a dog, it is also a way to assist in getting a lot more reliability from the dog.


Now let's talk about consistency. Let's go back again to our earlier example of learning to read the word apple. Let's suppose that sometimes the word apple is pronounced ay-pple and sometimes it is pronounced ah-pple. How confusing would that be?  Wouldn't it be easier to pronounce apple the same way every time (unless you have a British accent)? Wouldn't it just be easier to have sit mean sit every time?  I see a lot of my clients give their dog the sit command and their dog decides to lay down instead. My client is just thrilled to have their dog sort of listen to them so they'll accept the down over nothing. Not only is this inconsistency confusing the dog, it is not building a very reliable sit. At that point why not just say "do whatever you want".  In the dog world, sit should mean sit and down should mean down, every time.  If the dog gets it wrong and is obviously confused, it is the human's job to clarify and correct...not just let it go because it is easier.  A good yoga instructor will improve or correct their student's position in order to improve their workout. Think of correcting a dog when he gets something wrong in a similar way. 

The same goes for the rules of the house. If the dogs aren't allowed on the sofa, they should never be allowed on the sofa. Having consistent rules makes it really nice for the dog. Black and white is a language they understand. It is not a good communication style to have mom allow the dog on the sofa because she thinks it's cute when dad doesn't allow the dog on the sofa, ever.

Watch How Dogs Communicate with Each Other

If you are reading this and find yourself questioning the importance of clear and consistent communication in working with our dogs, just watch how dogs communicate with one another.  Their style is very cut and dry. They are very physical with one another in clearly and consistently outlining boundaries, pack structure, appropriate behavior, etc. Dogs are not afraid of hurting one another's feelings, which I find is one of the main reasons why people aren't more clear and consistent with their dogs...they are afraid they are being mean.

Being Mean

Let's examine this notion of being mean for a moment. It is not mean to mean what you say. I've said it before and I'll say it again, dogs like black and white. More often than not, what winds up happening is people, in an effort to not be a meanie, are not as clear and direct as they need to be with their dogs and not nearly as consistent as they should be. It doesn't always bother my clients when their dog only bothers them some of the time. Let's follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion. Trust me, I see it all the time.  Let's say your dog jumps on you when you have your grubby clothes on and you don't mind because you don't care about these clothes, so you decide not to correct the bad behavior. (If you're feeling affectionate, you might even accidentally reward the bad behavior by petting your dog when he jumps on you because he's so cute.) Now, fast forward a few days. Let's assume your dog jumps on you when you are wearing your best work outfit and gets it dirty or ruins it. The frustrated version of you reprimands him for being a bad boy, you call me and say, "If I can't get his jumping under control, I'm going to have to give him up."  Believe me, correcting the bad behavior along the way clearly and consistently is not mean at all compared to letting the bad behavior escalate to the point where a frustrated you punishes him for being confused and then considers giving him up. The dog wasn't trying to ruin your suit, he just wasn't understanding the rules as they were not clearly laid out or consistently enforced.

Do Dogs a Favor

The biggest favor you can do for your dog is to communicate with him in a clear and consistent manor which will not only shrink the margin for error on his part, but will also provide a greater chance that he will know what you're saying and behave and communicate with you in a way that will please you. The benefit of having this type of communication system with your dog will not only keep him safe and looking to you for direction, it will also help your dog to become member of the family that you can integrate more fully into your life. Clearly, that sounds like a great plan!

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2013