How To Communicate With Your Dog

Fundamentally, dog training is about communication. From the human perspective, the handler is communicating to the dog what behaviors are correct, desired, or preferred in different circumstances and what behaviors are undesirable.

A handler must understand communication from the dog. The dog can signal that he is unsure, confused, nervous, happy, excited, and so on. The emotional state of the dog is an important consideration in directing the training, as a dog that is stressed or distracted will not learn efficiently.

According to Learning Theory there are four important messages that the handler can send the dog:

Reward or release marker

Correct behavior. You have earned a reward.

Keep going signal (KGS)

Correct behavior. Continue and you will earn a reward.

No reward marker (NRM)

Incorrect behavior. Try something else.

Punishment marker

Incorrect behavior. You have earned punishment.

Using consistent signals or words for these messages enables the dog to understand them more quickly.

It is important to note that the dog’s reward is not the same as the reward marker. The reward marker is a signal that tells the dog that he has earned the reward.

Rewards can be praise, treats, play, or anything that the dog finds rewarding. Failure to reward after the reward marker diminishes the value of the reward marker and makes training more difficult.

The meanings of the four signals are taught to the dog through repetition, so that he may form an association by classical conditioning so that the dog associates the punishment marker with the punishment itself.

These messages may be communicated verbally or with nonverbal signals. Mechanical clickers are frequently used as a reward marker, as are the words “yes!” or “good!”

The word “no!” is a common punishment marker. “Whoops!” is a common NRM. A KGS is commonly a repeated syllable.

Hand signals and body language also play an important part in learning for dogs. Some sources contend that the most effective marker is the human voice.

Dogs do not generalize commands easily. A command which may work indoors might be confusing out-of-doors or in a different situation. The command will need to be re-taught in each new situation.

This is sometimes called “cross-contextualization,” meaning the dog has to apply what’s been learned to many different contexts.

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