Thursday, June 3, 2010

Solving Puzzles

One of the things I find so interesting about working with shelter dogs, is that there is a puzzle to piece together, a mystery to solve. I was initially a Dance major in college before I switched to a major in Fine arts and then 2 more extra years after my B.A., taking undergraduate level Psychology courses. I was always a sensitive person who could glean information about people through body language. I was always intrigued by non verbal communication, and I've participated in various kinds of movement workshops. Recently, I have been exploring the concept of communicating/conveying ideas in terms of of training, or getting a desired behavior from the dogs and decided to try an experiment with my dog. I wanted to see if I could get him to come to me without using language. I usually call his name and then say "come" with or without a hand signal so I decided I would use no language or hand signals just sound and tone and the corresponding naturally occurring body movements that went along with the sound and tone. It worked. I just used high pitched happy sounding noises and my body made corresponding, non exaggerated, dancing around movements. It worked and the dog came running over to me, with a tad funny unsure look on his face, but wiggling around and all excited,and then I laughed and got all excited back as I was pleased that he grasped my intentions. I repeated this experiment about 6 times as I wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke, and it worked every time. By that point my smart Heeler had seen this as a new fun game we learned to play,and he was visibly happy and excited like when we play fetch with his nylabone (now that he is older we don't play so much, so it was fun to see him all excited like a young dog again). I was then curious to know if the experiment would work with my husband. He was up for the challenge, and had his own male approach which was lower in tone but a kind of excited hum/kazoo sound, and it worked for him too. The dog came to him in what looked to the dog, like a fun game and the dog was all excited to have gotten what we were trying to do and to have seemingly pleased us in that we were both relaxed, and laughing. I tried the experiment with my friend and her dog. She took a different approach and made a puppy whining sound instead of a non specific sound. Her dog tilted it's head from side to side in a kind of "what is this, she usually doesn't do this" way and then went to her. I was also able to get her dog to come to me just using sound and intention. All throughout this process, I kept getting the feeling that we were reinventing the caveman/ dog bond that has developed over time in pre- language history. A fun time was had by all.

In working with the shelter dogs, I've at times had to use quick deep "ehh" kind of like a buzzer sound, direct, deep and to the point if I was caught off guard with a shelter dog who was about to jump into the street while on the leash, or pull after another dog. The sound- deep direct,short, usually stops them in their tracks and then I tell them to "come" or "this way" in command tone, to change direction.Since I am working with dogs I don't get to spend that much time with, I've developed my own short hand, works in a pinch method, as I'm usually walking one or two dogs in an hour and don't have time to put up with non cooperative, nonsense in the dogs. They usually read my, "I mean business" body language, and get with the program or they quickly learn that they won't get to go. The outside kennels are lined up in a row with 2 rows across from each other so the dogs can often see what's going on, who is walking which dog,which dog to human interaction is allowing a certain dog to get walks. On occasion, if a dog I'm working with is being stubborn I'll forgo him for another first, and parade it past him and praise the other dog's good behavior in the yard outside the kennels where the difficult dog can see that good cooperative behavior gets praise and walks.The difficult dogs, sometimes get it, although I am careful to not provoke too much jealousy(it depends on the dogs involved)The dogs are smart and watch what goes on. Each dog is different, within breeds there is variation, within litters there is variation. I have come to walk a dog and stop and objectively try and view it, that is, see what is going on without any preconceived ideas. I try and see what it needs; some need perking up, some need settling down and a calm demeanor in me, some need to learn trust, some just need to expel energy and get basic obedience, some need major socialization with people and other animals. The challenge for me is to see what the specific needs are and try and help that dog.

My father died of the disease A.L.S./ Lou Gehrig's disease some years back. When he was in the hospital and completely paralyzed except for the ability to move an eye, we had to use an alphabet chart in order to figure out what he wanted to communicate. For some reason, I was always the first person to be able to figure out what he wanted after one or two letters, sort of like the TV show Wheel of Fortune, where you piece together a word from single letters and win a prize. I knew my father fairly well, and then I was very present, that is not distracted by my own thoughts or what I was going to do in the future, etc.., so I just looked at my dad and around the room and put together what I thought he might want at that moment; water, the TV shut off, a nurse if he was really agitated. So we read the non verbal signs and signals around us and try and piece together the needs of those who can communicate, but just not with the same language we are used to.This is what I find so interesting about working with the dogs, the challenge of finding out what I need to do to help them. The challenge of understanding their unique world and what it takes to communicate with them.

puzzle image attributed to


  1. A very interesting post. One of the things I want to work on is the giving of commands through silent hand signals. So far our dog gets the silent stay and sometimes the lay down command that we use but we want him to teach him to come, sit, and a few other things through hand signals as well. We spend a great deal of time out in the woods hiking and taking pictures of animals and being able to silently communicate with the dog in this manner would be very helful.

  2. Hi Mr. H, That sounds like a good plan. I bet you'd be surprised how tuned into your wishes your dog will become with basic bonding and training. A lot of the b.c's and b.c mixes I walk just sort of tune into my wishes and will stand still while I take photos while on leash, or if I stop for a phone call, whereas the lab/ hunting dog types are more apt to yank the leash at just the moment I click the photo, or pull the minute I take my cell phone out. Thanks for visiting,sounds like your guy is progressing well. We have a dog agility group down here, there may be one up your way.It might be a fun challenge for you guys and your dog. Stay dry now, this rain has been unbelievable