Bark magazine recently had an interesting article about a dog trained to a series of vibrations instead of verbal or visual cues. Tai, a Labrador retriever, wears a vest that allows the handler to signal him through different types of vibrations–pulsed or steady–placed above different legs. In other words, a pulsed vibration over the right front leg might mean back up, a steady one over the left hind might mean lie down. (Note to those of you going on electric collar alert (pretty much like I did): These are truly described as vibrations, similar to what you feel when your phone is on vibrate.)
An expensive motorized vest is hardly something that most of us need or want for our dogs, but it could be a boon for dogs working in noisy environment. If a dog can’t see you and it’s too noisy to use verbal signals, then this could be a wonderful addition to the many ways we communicate with dogs. The primary suggested use is in search and rescue operations, where it can be challenging for highly-focused dogs to hear their handlers.
This got me thinking about all the ways we communicate with dogs, and how each modality has its advantages and disadvantages. I found it instructive to think about how those impact on my communication with my own dogs; I’m hoping you will too.
VISUAL SIGNALS The plus here is that visual signals are of primary importance to dogs and are a great way to communicate. Unless your dog is laser focused on something else–the sheep, or a mouse, or the piece of pizza on the carpet–she’s paying attention to the slightest move that you make every time you interact. In my Lost in Translation DVD I ask the audience to call out whether I’m leaning forward or backward, and then do my best to move no more than a quarter of an inch. The can tell which way I’m leaning every time–salient visual signals can be miniscule and still be incredibly powerful.
The challenge is that we humans are often unaware of how we are moving our bodies, in part because we are so focused on speech and what we say. But we’re always cuing our dogs whether we know it or not, and our visual signals are often contrary to our verbal ones. That can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. I’m thinking about the owner who calls their dog to come, and then aggressively steps forward (as if to stop the dog). Or my inadvertently teaching my dogs to sit to a hand gesture without realizing it. We all know how important the tiniest change in, say, someone’s facial expression can be, and yet we often pay far too little attention to what we’re telling dogs with our bodies and our movements.
ACOUSTIC SIGNALS This, of course, is the modality we are most aware of using to communicate, and luckily, dogs are brilliant at learning to respond to a multitude of sounds. Dogs don’t have to be looking at us for this to work and can be good distance away as long as they can hear us. It doesn’t hurt that social canids like dogs and wolves use subtle changes in acoustic features to convey changes in meaning (a high-pitched growl versus a low-pitched one for example). In addition, we humans are able to produce a remarkable variety of noises to communicate with nuance and depth.
But ah, there’s the rub. That “remarkable variety” can get us into a lot of trouble. For one thing, we can say the same word a gazillion different ways. We might be focusing on the sound of each individual consonant and vowel, while the dog is attending to frequency. And then there’s that big vocabulary thing. How many ways are there to ask your dog to come back to you? Come! Here Here. Pup pup! Come Here! Come On. Daisy Come. Daisy. Get over Here. DaisyDaisyDAISY. DAISYDAMNIT . . .Etc. All of these things can, and have been, said by one of my clients. You may not be that extreme, but who of us hasn’t used sound inconsistently with our own dogs? This is my own biggest challenge; I can get lazy using synonyms or too many words for the same exercise, when I should be using one word, and one word only. Hmm. Time to make a note in my training journal to remind me that this is something to work on.
TOUCH Apart from the device mentioned above, we don’t tend to use touch as much to intentionally signal our dogs to do something, but we communicate through it none the less. We can touch dogs in ways that calm and support them–“You’re safe, I’m here”– or pet them in hopes it makes them feel happy and loved. Although less often than visual or verbal cues, we can ask them to do something with a touch too. When I say “Ready?” while touching Maggie’s paw, she picks it up in order for me to dry it off. I just experimented this morning, and sure enough, either one of those cues results in a lifted leg, although context was probably important. (We were where I always dry her off, I’ll have to try it in another area and see how well it’s generalized.)
The downsides of touch include its ability to communicate the wrong thing. For example, say you’re at the vet clinic, petting your dog. Except you’re even more nervous than he is, which is being clearly communicated by the way you are stroking him. Whoops. In addition, we may be touching our dogs in ways that they dislike, so rather than communicating love, we’re just eliciting irritation. Jeanette Cooperman wrote a great article in Bark magazine about how easy it is for us to semi-torture our dogs while we think we’re making them happy while we’re petting them.
All this reminds me how hard it is actually to communicate clearly. (This should not be a surprise to anyone with a partner, spouse, child, parent or best friend.) I’ve been doing a good job lately of taking notes on Maggie’s training sessions; I’m going to pay extra attention to communication as I do so for the next few weeks.)
What about you? What modality do you find most challenging? Most rewarding?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Speaking of training sessions, Maggie and I are working hard to prepare for our second attempt at running in the Open class at a big sheepdog trial. There is soooo much to work on: Just finding the sheep almost twice as far away as what she’s used to is the first challenge. We have limited access to fields that have outruns even close to the distance we’ll face in Hudson at the Midwest Championship Sheepdog Competition. It usually takes most dogs a full season of running in different trials to get used to running in the most challenging class, so I see these next trials as training and valuable experience for both of us. Maggie has run on the course before, but in the intermediate class, and so will expect to find the sheep much closer than they will be. That’s confused a lot of dogs; we’ll see how Maggie does!
Here’s the course from a different perspective from where the dog and handler start. But it gives you an idea of how huge the course is, and how far away the sheep start at (at the very back of the field on the left, the handler will start on the far right, actually out of the picture). The good news is that Maggie has a naturally big outrun, and so she might be able to get herself to the sheep without extra help from me. But she runs so wide that she will probably lose sight of the sheep part way out because they’ll be behind a rise, and that well might bring her in before she gets behind the sheep. If she does, cross your paws that she’ll take a “redirect” from me, and run out farther and find the sheep.
Her next challenge is the “lift,” worth up to 10 whole points although only lasting a few seconds. It’s worth 10% of your score though, because it sets the stage for the rest of the run. The “lift” is when the dog turns in toward the sheep and takes charge of them. Dogs can come in hard like gang busters, charging in and scaring the sheep such that they end up fighting the dog the rest of the course. Or they can come with hesitation, so that the sheep decide they can do what they want. Ideally, a dog comes toward the sheep with a Can Do attitude but with enough finesse to not scare the sheep. My translation of these three styles is:
“Holy Crap! Get going! We’re a million miles from my human and I’m scared silly!”
“Uh, excuse me. I don’t want to cause any trouble, but would you consider, well, maybe, if you’d like, if it would be okay, moving down the hill this way?”
“Hello ladies! We’re going this way! Chop chop, let’s get going, a nice quick trot would be good.”
Here’s Maggie practicing “lifting” sheep off of a pan of corn at a Scott Glen clinic. It is, of course, extra hard to move sheep off of their favorite food, but more and more trials are setting sheep out by putting down a pan of grain. Maggie got a lot better at it, and I’m hoping it’s another way of giving her more confidence.
Maggie falls somewhere between #2 and#3, depending on how she is feeling and the sheep themselves. Regretably, she had a big set back at a recent training session, and was so upset she actually quit working the next session. (Maggie has tremendous talent, but is far too easily upset by minor issues. In this case, another dog simply came and “took the sheep” away while she was working them due to a mis communication. That would have no effect on most dogs but it threw Maggie for a loop, and on our next attempt the sheep couldn’t be settled for Maggie to do a lift, and the dog working around her rattled her even more.) Two more sessions later, at a good friends with very cooperative sheep, and she was keen again, but still hesitant once it was time to do the drive section of the course.
My primary job now is to boost her confidence. Maggie has a lot of skill, but very little confidence, so I’m not going to worry much about trying to get a great score on the drive at Hudson, IF we get to it. My goal is for her to 1) find the sheep, even if I have to give her a lot of extra help, and 2) have the confidence to pick them up at the lift and bring them down the field to me. (They will possibly try to run back to the pens from where they came where their friends are. Maggie will have to put her big girl pants on and not let that happen.) If she gets the sheep down the field to me, it would be great if we get a good start on a drive and complete all three legs of it, even if sloppily. Most importantly, it’s important that she enjoy herself and learns to be comfortable working so far away from me.
What are you working on this week? Whatever it is, I hope it goes well. I’ll write about the results of the trial next week. (And if you find all this sheepdog stuff boring, please don’t hesitate to say so, in some kind, benevolent way of course. But I’d really like to know . . .)
Diane Mattson says
I love hearing about how Maggie is doing with her training. If I was a Border Collie, I think I’d be like Maggie, easily thrown off and lacking confidence! Looking forward to hearing how her next trial goes.
Bridget responds much better to visual cues. She is far less likely to ignore hand signals over auditory commands. We need to work more on auditory for those times she can’t see me.
I was watching the “Super Dog” competition at our August Fair. It’s a casual fun competition with agility trials and short races. The dogs were having so much fun. A young Australian Shepherd skipped half of the trial, ran into the tent and grabbed his frisbee. “Let’s do this now!” A Pomeranian cleaned up in most of the contests. This hasn’t much to do with your week’s blog, but wanted to share the sheer joy the dogs and handlers were experiencing.
Deborah Graber says
Can’t wait to hear how you & Maggie do at the trial! I live in Utah and there is always a big trial over Labor Day weekend. But I have to work this weekend so will miss it 🙁
I very much enjoy reading about Maggie’s progress in her sheepdog trials. I have a retired three-year winner of the Bluegrass and first runner up in the National Finals (all before he came to us) and four other BCs whose “talents” . . . um . . . lie elsewhere. It’s very interesting to see your training/behavioral principles applied in this context. Keep going and best of luck!
LOVE the sheepdog stuff !!! Fascinating !!!
Kathy Engel Stabler says
I love to read about the sheepdog stuff! It’s a fascinating, foreign world to terrier-loving me.
Jean K Carr says
I find the description of working the sheep fascinating. Please tell us about the trial!
Peg Zeis says
Vibration as a method of communication an be a useful tool as a senior dog begins losing his hearing. I recognized changes in my now-fourteen year old, physically fit, loves-to-run-in-the-woods mixed breed. Wondering about communicating with Luke as his hearing continued to diminish, I purchased a vibrating collar. I began initiating a vibration while instructing Luke to “come” and when he did he was handsomely rewarded. His hearing is now nearly gone but Luke responds reliably to a vibration impulse administered when he leaves my sight thus providing a safe environment for my pal to remain active and enjoy off-leash trail walks with me and our other dog.
Barbara Martin says
I love reading about the sheepdog stuff. Always interesting to learn about all the things our dogs can do. Also learning about how you are handling a less confident dog.
My four year old GSD, Casey, just earned his NoseWork 2 title. So proud of my boy. The best part was that after twelve sessions with a trainer (Absolute Dogs method) my very dog-reactive boy and I were able to handle waiting in the parking lot with dogs there and there and there and both of us stay calm (with lots of cookies of course.)
While still training for the next level of K9 Nose Work, I plan to start him on tracking. Not sure how these two different sniffing related skills will work – will he get confused? Anyone who has tried this please let me know.
A suggestion Trisha. I love the comments from your readers. Is there anyway you can allow folks to upload a photo of their dog? It would be so fun the attach a face to the name.
I use more and more hand signals and fewer and fewer voice signals with Phoebe now that she’s older and less able to hear me (although sometimes I wonder if it’s ability or inclination). We’ve practiced using only hand signals over the years so she understands most of them. On occasion, I’d go through her series of tricks using only visual cues knowing someday it might come in handy, plus it was fun.
Olive is much more responsive to verbal cues. She relies on my tone of voice, expression, posture for assurance that things are okay and it’s safe to respond. Visual cues are more suspicious to her. But, we’re working on it.
I’m wondering if there are ways to create challenges for Maggie on the farm that she may not immediately feel up to, but with you there, she can work on gradually? Maybe that don’t involve sheep? I’m thinking how certain tricks or find it or exercises have the dog and the person out of sight of each other help build up overall self-esteem that translates to other contexts. Just a thought.
Yes, yes, and yes to sheepdog trials and tribulations.
Ruth Seal says
Love, love, love reading about the two of you working sheep. It’s so much fun living the triumphs and challenges thru the two of you. My Aussie/Border’s talents are else where, but I still dream! Thanks so much. Oh, gotta go- the frisbee just came out… Best of luck to you both.
Jeffrey Marler says
I love your books and treasure your blogs. I work with an amazing service dog, Kazou. He was trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) and has been a Godsend to my practice. He and I work with children who have language-learning challenges. My children and their mothers absolutely adore Kazou. He gives me so many opportunities to laugh at myself.
One of Kazou’s activities with my children is a “clean-up” exercise, where a child throws stuffed toys “under” a table, “behind” the couch, “in front” of the chair (etc). The child has a wonderful time playing with Kazou, getting Kazou to retrieve the toys and watching him put them back in a bucket. The child gains such confidence experience Kazou respond successfully to the child’s verbal commands, and the child has little idea that she’s working on cognitive/linguistic concepts of place. Kazou also lets me think of myself as a successful dog trainer, until I realize I’ve inadvertently inserted a cue into the command structure.
I thought I was training Kazou to put the toys back in the bucket. As a bit of a setup, I sit on one side of the toy bucket, while the child sits on the other. The other day, a child threw a toy to my left, which meant that I was between Kazou and the bucket. When Kazou retrieved the toy, he placed it in my lap, wagging his tail enthusiastically, clearly expecting his reward (petting). I looked at him and wondered, “you are so smart. Why did you put the toy in my lap?” While reviewing the training procedure, I realized I was consistently placing my hand on the bucket as he retrieved the toy. I hadn’t actually taught him to put the toy in the bucket, but to put it close to my hand. And that’s exactly what he was doing when I was between him and the bucket. So much for exceptional quality of my dog-training skills.
Your books (and CCI’s training) helped me to assume many of Kazou’s errors were actually my training errors rather than dog performance problems. Thank you for all you do in support of human-animal interactions. Best wishes from Texas!
Shucks, the link to Cooperman’s article doesn’t take us there.
Love hearing the sheepdog info…
Vicki in Michigan says
It seems to me that Maggie-in-the-pic looks exactly the way you want. “Good morning, ladies, it’s time for us all to move from this part of the field to another part. I’m sure you’re ready; let’s GO!”
Wishing you a happy comfortable dog!
Mary Beth Stevens says
Love learning about working sheep! I know nothing about it and am in awe! Of both you and Maggie!
As for what we’re working on, well, I signed my Tippy up for CGC classes and the test. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but when he came to us two years ago, if anyone had told me I’d even be considering this step for him I would have blown my milk right out of my nose😊. And here we are giving it a go. No idea if he’ll pass, but hey – he doesn’t care, and I’m just proud of how far he’s come! Thanks for asking!
Love this story! So glad Luke can still enjoy the woods . . .
I would love that too, thanks for asking Barbara. I’ll send this to my blog guru and see what he says.
First, kisses to Phoebe and Olive (if they’d like them). Second, interesting question about giving dogs confidence away from sheep. I do some simple nose work with her, and I’ve found that to be a big confidence builder. But sheep work doesn’t seem to translate much to other things. Part of Maggie’s issue is that she has a ‘strong eye’ which means she literally can get mesmerized by the sheep (instead of vice versa). But I’ll ponder, love that you are thinking of her!
This is such a great story about how easy it is to miscommunicate, love it! Thanks so much for sharing it, I’ve done similar things in the past too; always is a surprise, right? (I used to say “Where’s Jim?” to Willie when Jim drove up. He’d run to the window. Yeah, you guessed it. I said “Where’s Jim?” once when Jim was sitting beside us…. Willie, as you have already guessed, ran to the window. Sigh.
Well darn, I’ll look into it. Gotta run right now though, but later…
Sounds like a victory to me!
Fixed it! Sorry,but thanks for letting me know!
Patricia Tirrell says
Charlie is my 15 year old blind beagle. He has been blind since birth. He knows verbal and touch markers for basic cues. What I discovered when I was being observed while working with him from a distance was that I also use hand signals with him. He is 15 and I still use hand signals 😊 – I think I use them more out of habit than anything else. I have no idea if he knows that I’ve raised or lowered my arm… that I’m holding my hand up for him to wait, etc. but it is such a part of how we work together that I don’t know that I could change this pattern after 15 years ❤️.
Lisa R says
During my many paid working years, the major corp I was with sent us to many ‘flavor of the day’ management classes. The one I liked the least (primarily because of the Facilitator’s behaviors) left me with what has proven to be a useful technique. The quote is “Begin with the end in mind”. The example given was something like a team working toward, aiming for getting into the Superbowl… which they did.. and then blew the Superbowl games big time – because, you see, they aimed for getting to the Superbowl, not winning it. They still worked hard on the individual parts… but didn’t decide/determine/visualize/etc. the right thing. For you and Maggie, wouldn’t that ‘end in mind’ be a tidy group of sheep ending where they should? You’ve already given up ‘tidy’, and you’re going to supply ‘lots of help’… where does it end as you both would like? Just a thought to perhaps test out. I see a great finish for you both! It is beautiful!
Oh, boy, those little cues…Daisy, my anxious one, is so sensitive to me being stressed that she won’t eat if she picks up on it. And I have been so stressed lately, with the upheaval of moving my 91 year old mother-in-law into a seniors’ complex, getting her house emptied and cleaned for sale, calming my husband down after a session with his sisters 😂 – it is so hard to project relaxation when you’re quivering! Daisy has missed a few meals, I just can’t manage it every time, but it’s good calming practice for me, and it mostly works. She’s always been sound-sensitive (I had to stop clicker training her) but definitely responds more to visual cues. On the other hand, Rosa responds to treats only, and will pretty much do whatever we ask however we ask it, if there’s a treat involved. And won’t if there isn’t! Bull-mastiff bullheadedness…
Laura Anne says
Reading about the vibration vest made me remember a deaf Shetland Sheepdog that ran in agility several years back around here. His handler stomped her feet to cue him, and she told us that he responded to the vibration made by her feet. Really amazing and fun team to watch.
Wishing you and Maggie luck and skill in the right combinations.
Sadly we won’t be working on anything at my house for awhile. Finna had a very aggressive and unsuspected cancer that ruptured her spleen killing her a few days ago. We’re all still in shock but it was really the best way she could have gone. A couple weeks before our eldest cat had passed quietly in his sleep. Meowzart was 17.5 and increasingly frail so it wasn’t much of a surprise but it was still a loss. Finna was quieter than typical since then but we just figured that like the rest of us she was adjusting to the loss. The night she died she was subdued when I went to bed but had moved from place to place as usual as my husband was getting ready to come upstairs. This was 1:00 a.m. at 4:30 a.m. when my son got up to see what the cats had knocked over she was gone. She would have chosen to go quickly at home rather than to find her end with strangers handling her at a vet clinic.
There will be more dogs and thanks to everything I had to learn to make Finna’s life better new dogs will have a much more skilled handler/trainer. She was a master’s class in behaviorism and I’ll always be grateful that we had her in our lives.
Oh Kat, I am so sorry. Finna has become a friend, and I will miss her greatly. And two huge losses at the same time? Th cost of these loves we have are great, but who would we be without them! Thank you for letting us know, and thank you for letting us know Finna. It’s been an honor.
Kat, I am so sorry. You’ve had three big loses in a relatively short time. It must be like living in someone else’s house right now. Finna came into your life and left it as a surprising gift. She made no excuses and took no prisoners 😉 The deep lessons will resonant forever. My heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.
The Maserati is zooming on to her next adventure!
suzi bluford says
love the sheepdog stories-more please :-))
So sorry Kat. Hearing about Finna’s journey with you made me realize what *is* possible even starting from a less than ideal place. And sorry about Meowzart too. I lost both my oldest cats within 36 hours this June, so I know even if you’re expecting it there’s a shock.
Oh dear. Kat, I’m so sorry to hear that. She was very blessed to have found a life with you! Sincere condolences…
Thank you for the link fix, Trisha.
(Adore that picture of Maggie :>)
Emily Sieger says
would love your perspective on this “don’t teach your children to ask to pet a dog” https://fox28spokane.com/your-children-and-dogs-they-dont-know/?fbclid=IwAR2xa6I-IULrhauaM5MsPWxHrA1WDznIqcdUwjnHjdVoUk3qTsdK-limfBQ
Definitely food for thought. I think this is a great topic for a blog, thanks for bringing it up!
Wanda Jacobsen says
Love reading about Maggie and sheep. Hope to attend the trials in Hudson, WI, this coming weekend! Good luck to you and your beautiful dog.
CJ in Canada says
Love reading about Maggie and all the intricacies that go into learning how to herd. I have a young border collie who also lacks confidence at times, but he’s herding his jolly ball and teaching me how the *most* miniscule movements from me mean something different than what I thought I was teaching him for agility. He’s my 2nd agility dog, so luckily I had the chance to learn with my more confident (and quick to bark out when I wasn’t being clear) Aussie.
Kat – thank you for letting us get to know Finna, my sympathies
Jenny Haskins says
I tend to use inflections more than the old advised ‘single word commands’. I also tend to talk to my dogs as though they are pre-schoolers.
But different dogs have different ways of communication– or at least being communicated to.
Several of mine have been very very attuned to eye contact.
The Kelpies would go to where I was looking. If I wanted a ‘stay’ from them I couldn’t take my eyes of them for a moment. With Scott in agility he would go (like to wind) for wherever I was looking
The Germans Shepherds will break and come to me if I look at them. So on Ob. long stays, I look intently at the tree tops until I m cued to call them.
Sheep stuff is never boring! (I am also biased because I recently got a less confident dog, so I am especially appreciative of your post about Maggie. As a novice handler, with a dog who is not ready to trial, I appreciate learning from a more experienced handler.)
As for communication, I don’t know what’s worse-I am pretty verbal, so I talk too much and use too many words for my dogs. I’m not very kinesthetic, so when learning to herd with my other dog, I think I was always moving awkwardly (and incongruent).
Barb Stanek says
Love hearing about the sheep stuff! Equally love the behavior stuff. Would miss both! I have a water dog puppy who swims! So I will be working water again next summer — can’t tell you how elated I am. I’ve had several water dogs for whom water work was NOT a treat. But this new pup seems enchanted. Be still my heart and let me not do anything to change her mind!