We are going to start this post, with a human-related tale. A dad was put in charge of watching his two boys for the day so the mom could take care of some grocery shopping and other errands without having to wrangle two children on top of the tasks at hand. So the dad had a great idea: it's hot outside, it's summer, let's go to the pool. So he got the boys together and they headed over to the public pool. Dad was relaxing, the kids were having fun, until the inevitable happened. One of the boys came up and said, "dad, I need to go to the bathroom". Now, the dad didn't want to round up both boys to go to the bathroom and did what anyone who has ever been in a lake and needed to go to the bathroom is told to do: just go in the water (yes, guilty). So of course, the dad said, "don't worry about it; just go in the pool". Now for those of us in the guilty party of ever peeing in the water, we know you just let it go as it were. For a 7-year-old, this task needed some extra guidance in hindsight. The little boy squatted over the edge of the pool, pulled down his swim trousers, and created quite the scene reminiscent of a scene from the movie Caddyshack. Yep, that's right, the little boy didn't need to pee; he had to do something else, and he did just as his dad instructed. Needless to say, the dad was mortified as were those currently in the pool and he packed up the boys and headed home.
Other than providing your humor for the day, what on earth does this have to do with dog training? This actually could apply with any sort of training or instruction in general: giving clear communication. In this story, the little boy clearly communicated something, the father communicated something back, and the end result was not what either party anticipated. The father did not have enough information so his communication to the boy yielded a result that wasn't what is desired. The boy didn't communicate that information clearly on what he needed, so the father couldn't communicate back with correct instructions. And beyond that, the father didn't give clear, concise and detailed information to the boy so the boy knew exactly what was expected. This was all a clear misunderstanding in regards to communication.
A huge part of the breakdown in our training with our dogs is that there is a lack of communication occurring, sometimes from both parties. In a nutshell, all dog training is is creating a language you and your dog can use to communicate to each other what you need and what is acceptable. Humans speak human, dogs speak dog. Dogs aren't born knowing the word "sit", "down", "leave it", etc. When you are training your dog, you are teaching them a new language that you both need to understand to guide the dog into doing what you have asked. On the reverse side, dogs communicate using mostly body language and they create their own ways to try to communicate with us. For example, we have taught our dog Tesla since she was a young dog that if she wants dinner, to go outside to use the bathroom, etc, she needs to sit by the food bowl, sit by the door, etc depending on what she wants. Her communication to us is she is sitting near the thing she needs in order to ask for it. She wasn't born knowing this; we created a way to communicate back and forth with each other what her needs are. Similarly, we never actively taught it, but if I am working and she wants some attention, she just sticks her head in my lap for attention. This is her way of communicating with me that she wants attention and a nice scalp massage. Communication created between two different species, it is a magical thing.
Unfortunately, communication is an area that people constantly need to work on. We don't always say what we mean, we give mixed signals, we aren't always clear or consistent, just to name a few trouble points. This is evident with issues people have between each other, but people don't always realize when working with their dogs that they are creating that same problem. How many people tell their dog "down" to mean don't jump on me, get off, but then expect to use that same word for lay down? Dogs don't understand that the same word can have two different actions and it is their job to figure out the difference. It's unfair to expect the dog to always respond appropriately in those two instances when we didn't set them up with clear details on our end. People create issues when they assume the dog understands the language they've created, when the dog really doesn't. They may respond 50% of the time with no other distractions occurring, but that doesn't mean they truly understand the word you have paired with the action and that you want that to occur everywhere else. Humans also aren't very consistent. In working with a client over the weekend, the dog behaved differently with the two owners: one she responded great, one she didn't. The one she didn't respond great to was because he was not very consistent. He would click and a treat wouldn't be delivered. Sometimes a treat would, but about a 1/3 of the time it was an empty click. His lack of consistency taught the dog not to trust or pay attention to his form of communication because it wasn't very reliable. The other owner did treat immediately after every single click so the dog did respond better to her because she could rely on what that noise meant. If sometimes jumping is ok and sometimes pulling on the leash is no big deal, but other times it's not, it's not fair to the dog because you haven't created a consistent channel of communication for the dog to let them know the difference.
Another area we aren't always great at communication-wise is saliency. We need to make sure our forms of communication are obvious. Remember, we are teaching a whole new made-up language to the dog. Using the cue "sit" as opposed to "can you sit for me?" is much more obvious for the dog and there is less information to have to pick apart and try to understand. Similarly, we communicate with our bodies a lot, which is how dogs mainly communicate with each other, so they try to use that information to figure out what we want. If we use body cues that are very similar to different things or give hand cues that are too similar, it can be difficult for the dog to learn the difference and you may see some inconsistent behaviors on the part of your dog as a result. Make sure you give clear and concise direction when asking your dog to do something.
Lastly, set your dog up for good communication. When you go to a crowded shopping mall, theme park, or concert, that's not the best time to have a conversation unless you have made it clear you need to talk and have found a way to communicate with each other. Similarly, if you take your overly exuberant or shy dog to the dog park and try to give them cues when they haven't been set up for that in the past and with gradual exposure and training, you are setting them up to fail and they won't be able to "hear" what you are trying to say. If you have set up training scenarios that gradually expose them to harder challenges where they can work towards "listening" to you better, you are more likely to have effective communication. On the other spectrum of setting them up, we should use our big human brains to learn more about how dogs communicate. Most of the time they are giving body signals to try to communicate to us and the world around them, but we didn't bother to try to learn it, so we tune out what they say. It doesn't do the dog justice and set up effective communication between species if we don't even give the courtesy of trying to learn their language. If you think a wagging tail always means a happy dog, then you are in the group of needing to dive deeper into learning dog body language and communication. When you set them up for success and learn some of their language, those communication lines are more likely to remain open and a happy result can occur.
When your dog isn't giving you what you want, first stop and think about if it possibly due to a communication error. Dogs don't do things or not do what you ask just out of spite. Most of the time we haven't done our part to clearly communicate what we want and learn how they communicate as well. But if we work hard to keep those communication lines open and create a language both you and your dog can understand, you will be successful. If you don't, you may as well be the culprit of the famous pool scene from Caddyshack.