A few years ago a dog trainer that I was with in Los Angeles told me of a quote by George Bernard Shaw that completely transformed my perspective on dog training and not only dog communication, but communication with people as well. “The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s really quite brilliant and accurate. My wife and business partner Claudia and I experience this first hand on a daily basis since her native language is Spanish and mine is English. The beauty is that if we study dog communication by looking at dog body language and the calming signals that dogs use, the basics are actually pretty simple.

Turid Rugaas is a dog trainer from Norway who has studied and written a book and created a fantastic video called Calming Signals. Calming signals are the universal language of all dogs and as Turid explains, there are about 30 different calming signals that all dogs use and understand, and they use them with us as well as other dogs. If we understand this type of dog communication and respond appropriately to these calming signals we can have great relationships with our dogs. Unfortunately, if we don’t learn this dog body language, there is the potential of causing harm to our dogs. They may give up on using the signals and then not be able to communicate with other dogs clearly. They may become confused, perpetually nervous and stressed because we aren’t responding appropriately to their clear dog body language.

A perfect example that Turid gives is that when a dog perceives another dog or person as being aggressive, his instinct is to give one or several calming signals, such as licking his lips or turning away to stop the aggressive behavior. But a human who is giving the dog a command to come in a loud voice and doesn’t understand the signals may interpret them as defiance or disobedience, and become louder or more aggressive, confusing the dog even more.

Some of the calming signals that she discusses that are so subtle that you would not even notice them if you don’t know what to look for are also the most commonly used. Besides lip licking and turning away or turning the head, there is yawning, sniffing the ground, sitting down and even wagging the tail. So the next time you are trying to take your dog’s picture and you’re getting frustrated because she keeps turning away from the camera or licking her lips, respect that and try to make it fun for both of you.

 

Full moon kayak adventure tour
Join us on an outstanding full moon adventure on the Catawba River at Tailrace Marina.

 

Studying dog body language and Ms. Rugaas’ book and videos on calming signals was transformational for my relationship with my dogs as well as my work as a dog trainer. I think that they should be required material for all dog owners and highly encourage everyone to study them. We share our world with our dogs. It’s imperative that for a successful relationship with them that we understand their needs and are able to communicate with them. Once you understand calming signals, not only will your dog be able to communicate with you, but you will be able to use the same signals to communicate with, and if necessary calm your dog when they are stressed.

So please check out Turid Rugaas. It will change your relationship with your dog and make both of your lives better. You can google Turid Rugaas Calming Signal or her website.


In the last blog, entitled Dog Obedience Training! Do I have to be a “Dog Whisperer”?, we discussed the importance of consistency in training. And no, you don’t have to be a dog whisperer or professional trainer in order to have a well-behaved dog.

You do have to set yourself and your dog up for success. Start your dog obedience training in a closed environment, with little to no distractions. This environment is ideal to start off leash dog training. You want to keep control of their focus, which will be easier if you keep sessions short and make it fun, with lots of praise and enthusiasm. Once they are focused on you and consistently performing the behavior well, take it to the next level. Go into the living room with the TV on. Once you have success there, go into the backyard where there are more but limited distractions. Next may be the front yard. Remember to never do off leash dog obedience training in any open environment. No matter how good they are doing we don’t want to risk them running after a distraction like a squirrel or a cat.

If an environment turns out to be too much (you might barely get them to look at you let alone obey a command), take a step back to the last environment where you were successful. We do this all the way to the point where they can sit and focus on you even when outside a dog park. And remember, set them up for success. Make yourself the most exciting thing out there. If you can’t get focus and obedience, don’t keep saying a command. Give a command you are sure they can follow and then release them, and then stop for the time being. It’s time to take a break.

 

outdoor dog obedience training
“Every adventure I take with my puppy Miah turns into some sort of training trying to get her to pose just right. Sometimes, having a little help from others can make the scene so much more mesmerizing.” Photo by Wyatt Ryan

 

Eventually, you will be able to get focus and obedience even inside of a dog park, which can be a good place to do more off leash dog training. But remember that even in a dog park, you have to pay attention to your dog and what’s happening at all times. Too many people go to the dog park and are on their phone or distracted talking to other dog owners rather than making sure the dogs are all ok.

Positive reinforcement or reward-based training is great in dog obedience training, meaning that they obey the command and they get a reward, be it a treat, love, and attention, or the opportunity to play with you like with a tug toy. Play is a huge part to success.

 

Full moon kayak adventure tour
Join us on an outstanding full moon adventure on the Catawba River at Tailrace Marina.

 

Most importantly, keep sessions short, fun and positive for both of you. Training is as much about building and strengthening your relationship with your dog as it is about them following commands. Make sure that you stop the session before your dog loses interest and then reward them with a good play session. Training sessions should always start and end with play. Then training itself becomes a reward and they look forward to it. It’s all part of setting them up for success.

Lastly, dogs learn at different speeds and in different ways just like people. Don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even the best and most successful trainers still take seminars and ask for help from others. To achieve success in dog obedience training, we can’t let pride get in the way.


I spent time working and attending private sessions with Matt from The Zen Dog in LA who works with people whose dogs often have pretty serious behavioral issues. One principle that he stresses is the importance of mental exercise and that “mental exhaustion trumps physical exhaustion every time”. While physical exercise is undeniably important, mental exercise and stimulation result in a dog with more mental and thus emotional self-control and discipline. Dogs that have substantial physical but limited or no mental exercise are like pro athletes…  but that is insane.

There are a number of ways to keep dogs mentally stimulated. There are great puzzle games available where you place treats inside and the dog has to figure out how to open the various compartments. Teaching dog tricks can be another great way to challenge them mentally, especially if you use a technique called shaping. Shaping can be challenging at first because you essentially are waiting for the dog to perform certain actions and then marking or rewarding little steps towards the behavior that you want. For example, if you want your dog to open the fridge and get you a soda, you might tie a towel to the door so the dog can pull the door open. Then when the dog makes any movement towards the refrigerator you would mark that behavior with a word, like “good”, or a sound, like a clicker, and then follow the mark with a treat. It’s like a game and every move by the dog that takes it closer to the towel is rewarded with a marker and a treat. Dogs will generally learn after doing shaping a few times that they can just start offering movements, actions and behaviors until they hit on the right one, and then they continue to perform it and adding other behaviors.

Many dogs have been bred to perform specific tasks. If you can get them to use those traits in a mental as well as physical way, you will be way ahead of the game. For example, if you have a retriever, rather than playing fetch you can also add in games of hide and seek where you hide treats or toys and have them find and retrieve them. Just remember to keep it under control so that they don’t get obsessive about the game. If that is an issue, keep switching it up. Remember that you are in charge. Games are another form of reward and should be played when they are behaving.

 

Basic obedience training is another great form of mental exercise and has the added benefit of shaping a dog that is a pleasure to be with and easy to travel with. There are a number of different methods of training obedience that are effective. The main thing is to find one that works for you and your dog to create a common language so that you are able to communicate and keep them safe and happy. One trainer told me a quote by George Bernard Shaw that is amazingly relevant – “The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Obedience training is not only about teaching your dog discipline but also about creating a common language to better communicate and avoid confusion and the accompanying stress. It’s important to remember that we humans really need to find and teach our dogs a common language in order to communicate, just as we would teach a child oral and then written language.

Training also requires spending time one on one with your dog and is a powerful way to build and strengthen your bond.  They are very intuitive and perceptive beings and are often very vigilant to our behavior, mood, and actions and looking to us to see what is next and if everything is ok. By creating that common language combined with strengthening our bond, they are able to relax much more and that makes life a lot more fun for everyone.