by Lori Herbel
"Joe, I said lie down!"
Dogs are gifted with an incredible sense of hearing. Research has proven that fact. Thousands of independent home studies have proven it too ask anyone who has accidentally bumped the 'cookie' jar lid and they'll tell you that even sleeping dogs three rooms away are instantly at their feet in anticipation of a treat.
A dog's sense of hearing is second only to their sense of smell. Canines can hear a wider range of tones than we can as humans. Their sensitive ears can pick up tones that are too low for us to hear, as well as tones that are too high-pitched for our human ears to detect.
Then why do we, as handlers, think we need to be so loud and repetitive with our commands when we are working our dogs?!
The simple fact is, we don't. Repetitive commands, as well as a loud voice, are simply habits into which we have fallen. To be fair to our dogs, we should really concentrate on clear, consistent, quiet communication. To be fair to ourselves, we should realize that repetitive, loud commands can not only affect the quality of work we can do, but can also result in points off on the trial field.
What are we teaching our dogs by repeating a command twice, or even three or four times? We are teaching them they don't have to listen. Think about it from the dog's perspective. They hear the command once. They don't have to respond. They hear the command repeated, they still do not have to respond. The third repetitive command, and still there is no response; and so far, no consequence to them for not responding. With each command the voice gets shriller, the volume goes up, and body language is often added for emphasis. Let's say the fourth command finally results in the desired response. What has this dog learned? He learned that three out of four times, "lie down" meant nothing to him. He learned he only has to listen approximately 25% of the time. He learned that he doesn't have to listen until you "really mean it".
Ask for something once, and get it. Say the command, and give the dog a chance to respond. If the dog doesn't follow the command, follow up with a correction, either verbal or physical (pushing toward the dog with pressure) or both. Do not repeat the command (at least without some kind of correction in between), use whatever methods it takes to push the dog into responding to the original command.
In training, the handler has the luxury of moving around on the field, or leaving the post. He can change his goal in order to enforce the desired action he has asked of his dog. If the dog doesn't honor a flank as the sheep are approaching an obstacle, the handler can come off of the post and get what he asked for, even if it now causes the stock to miss the obstacle. At the point the dog refuses the command, the handler can abandon the attempt to put the stock through the obstacle, and concentrate on following through to teach the dog to respect his direction. A dog that is allowed to not honor commands becomes a dog that will choose when to listen, and when not to listen. Unfortunately, this can, and will, happen at the most inopportune times!
If you find you have fallen into the repetitive command habit, you must take time to remedy it. You didn't set the pattern overnight, so don't expect it to change overnight.
High Volume Commands
Ask quietly, don't demand. Using a loud, gruff voice applies pressure to the dog before it even has a chance to do anything wrong. Imagine working for a boss who, every time he came by your desk, demanded loudly in your face that you "MAKE THESE COPIES!" or "GET THIS REPORT OVER TO MR. JONES' OFFICE, NOW!!!" as if you were deaf and not very smart. Most bosses have the courtesy to treat their employees with respect. Those who don't show respect for their employees have a difficult time keeping people on the payroll. In our dog's mind, we are the "boss" and he is the "employee". We should treat our dogs with respect if we expect them to continue to work for us. Besides, we don't want to find out our dog has been hanging out with the other dogs around the water bowl, talking bad about us behind our back!
Take a few minutes and try a little experiment next time you go out to the field to work your dog. Don't try to complete a course, strengthen a weak flank, teach a new command, or have any goals other than to test your dog's ability to "hear". Send him on a flank with just a whisper. Make your goal to concentrate solely on how you communicate with your dog. Try some easy, low-stress exercises that you and your dog are familiar with and can complete easily. Give your directions at the same volume level and tone that you would use if you were speaking to a friend standing close to you. Trust that he will follow through, make a correction if he doesn't. You might be surprised at how well your dog can hear you, and how he responds to a calm, quiet voice. Interestingly, a low voice will make a dog keener to listening. A loud, panic-stricken voice has never been known to calm a dog down; in fact, it has quite the opposite effect.
Authority lies not in the number of times you say a command ("I'm going to say this over and over until you do it!"), nor the volume at which you say it ("LIE DOWN!!!"). Authority lies in the ability to teach a dog respond to a command without question or delay. This builds a true working relationship that can be depended on by both parties.
Using this technique for communicating with your dog will do more for you than just build a more efficient working relationship with your dog. It will improve your scores on the trial field. Imagine a handler standing at the post in the open field. The dog has executed a beautiful outrun, lift and fetch. The wrap around the handlers post was tight and controlled. The drive away to the first set of panels is straight on and at a steady pace. The sheep approach the drive panels, and pass through without incident. The handler gives a "come bye" flank to turn the sheep for the cross drive. The dog appears to be 'locked on' in a drive and does not flank, but continues to drive the sheep away in a straight line. A second, louder "Come Bye" from the handler, and still no response. The handler begins to get flustered as now the sheep are 40 feet on past the drive panels, well outside of the 21 foot zone that defines the beginning of the cross drive. A third flank command is finally honored by the dog, but by this time several points are not only lost, but the sheep are off-line, the handler is flustered and the dog is now suddenly feeling pressure for not listening. This situation can set a negative tone for the rest of the run. On the other hand, had this handler taught the dog to always respond to the original command, the run would probably have continued with the same quality it began with.
Speak softly! Ask for it once, and get it. You'll be happy with the results. Not only will you build and strengthen your working relationship with your dog, you will also finish your training session with your blood pressure in check and still have your voice!