Do I “Train”? Or do I “Communicate”? Ruminations on “Dog-Speak”.

Posted: August 14, 2012 in At Home with dogs., Dog Training, Dog training Research & Development, Dog-Speak", German Shepherd, Omorrow German Shepherds, Training Methodology, Working Dogs

Languages are a major part of my daily life.  I love learning, using, and understanding different languages…The nuance, the tempo, the rhythm, the idioms.  The last decade has seen me tackle several languages head on, with the enthusiasm of a puppy on a bully-stick.  Don’t take me wrong, I’m not boasting.  I’m lamenting really, wishing that I’d started this when I was young enough to sponge it up with a youthful intellect.  Over the course of 6 years, I’ve become fluent enough  using American Sign Language to take on public-speaking, and teaching  in schools for adults.  As I became more and more obsessed with German Shepherd Pedigree’s, my German skills have blossomed, owing to countless telephone conversations, and the patience of the good people of Bavaria.  I joke that , “Ich spreche hunde-centric Deutsch.”   (I speak canine German.)   Hungarian, (or Magyar) is the next hurdle in my linguistic endeavors.  This has been forced on me because of all the places, my dogs are descendants from lines in Hungary.  The Hungarian people are a delight to meet and talk with, but their native tongue is a testament to an overabundance of consonants and diacritics, with a sparse sprinkling of seemingly random vowels.  But I’m improving with help.  Én ígéret tartani  dolgozó  az diligently mindennapi! Köszönöm  Ivars! (I promise to keep working at it diligently!  Thank you Mr. Ivars!)

My biggest mistake has been not applying my efforts with languages  into my understanding of dogs.  Dogs have a unique and colorful language that conveys all of the meaning needed to become Diplomats, Caregivers, Pack-Leaders, Disciplinarians, and Playmates.  If you find this seeming anthropomorphizing difficult to believe (that is, giving dogs human qualities), set aside a couple of years, sit back and really observe, especially when they are in a pack of dogs.  I began my education in Dog-Speak nearly two years ago, after discovering a Trainer/Behaviorist from Norway, named Turid Rugaas.  (Thank the Most High that she speaks fluent English. My Norwegian is some what lacking.  Men da hvis ikker du er Norwegian, som er isn’t?)

Turid, if I may be so bold, is one individual that convinces me that every dog we train can be successful as long as we communicate with that dog.  Our first hurdle is understanding what the dog is telling you.  This communication transcends, perhaps even usurps, any form of training method.  I have learned that you can train a dog to do nearly anything if you communicate effectively, but without communication, training is just an exercising in earning tasty morsels to the dog.  And in truth, the dog has trained you to feed him his favorite treat, by performing some small act at the right time.    “Awwwww!  Look at my good girl offer me her paw!  Isn’t she cute?!!  Give her a treat!!!”   We’ve all been conditioned to do this by our dogs and it works.  Therein is the epiphany that I’ve reached.  You see, the dog is communicating with you, and very effectively.  It got exactly what it wanted from you by using language that it learned from you.

This is why I have set myself on a journey to learn “Dog-Speak”, not just so I can understand what my dogs are saying too me, but use it to communicate with each of them.  In the dog language that they learn from their Mother, and other members of their species.  The large majority of human dog trainers focus on teaching their dogs, human language.  The dogs learn it easily, but I feel we may be short-changing them, and ourselves, by doing this.

Let me be clear about this, by “human language”, I mean any form of communication that humans devise.  English, German, Dutch, Ki-Swahili, ASL…Any human language falls under this umbrella.  I also include in this group, Clicking, Whistles, and leash pops.  Human Beings created these forms of communication with dogs, and they sell our dogs a “second-best” alternative.

The closest form, (and yet still quite inadequate), of communication in Dog-Speak, that humans have utilized is commonly, (And INNAPPROPRIATELY) known as Dominance Behavior(That last sentence is very complicated owing to my inadequacy.  Read it again and try to gather my intent.) A horribly misused,maligned, and misunderstood term.  This method   uses body-language, attitude, distraction, and focus as a way to communicate with a dog.  Much the same as dogs do with other dogs.  But, we haven’t yet taken this methodology to it’s ultimate and most effective level, not nearly!   Humans tend to be lazy observers of those we view as lesser than us. It’s better  to teach communication that we use…As an example of this unfortunate failing, I give you Exhibit A:  American Sign Language and it’s history.

For many years, a common form of sign-language for the Deaf, wasn’t considered important, by hearing educators.  They needed to be taught ENGLISH, reading lips, and reading the printed word.  It was superior.  In the opinion of the Hearing.

Even the most famous of all the Schools for the Deaf, Gallaudet University, was administrated by Non-Deaf people.  It was thought, by the Hearing, that only their method was best for the education of the Deaf.  This, in fact, was the catalyst for a multi-day near riot on the campus in the early part of the 20th century.  Fortunately, in the 19th Century, there were those that saw beyond what the Hearing Educators believed to be best for people that they didn’t really understand.  When self-educated and highly intelligent members of the Deaf Community, deaf themselves, took the reins and ASL became an accepted language.  It was allowed to develop and flourish, and to be taught to those outside the Deaf community.  Today, it is a dynamic and beautiful form of communication, filled with nuance, color, and clarity.  However, there are still those within the Hearing that believe it to be a language sadly lacking.  They are Wrong…

And that, dear friends and colleagues, is where I believe “Dog-Speak” to be in the stream of time.  Some in-roads of understanding the language have been made by certain individuals.  They try to stay free of the “Make the dog more human” mind-set.  We’re not there yet, but there are some few on the way.  These trainers and behaviorists are unified in NOT being permanent attached to any single form of training method.  They are looking beyond training, and focusing on a relationship with a dog that allows the dog to speak to them…Amongst these people are Roger Abrantes, the previously mentioned Turid Ruugas, and Andrew Ramsey shows signs of moving into this paradigm.  And yes, like it or not, Cesar Millan too has a prediliction for communicating with dogsThough you may have told otherwiseOther less well-known but very effective trainers like Angie Ballman Winters are also seeing new directions.  (Google her! She’s in central Ohio)  I also know that a few people who lay no claim to the title “Trainer”, are also able to see beyond what is currently en vogue.  In the simplicity of their thinking, they are coming to better conclusions, and having great success with their canine companions.  Denine Phillips, author of “Don’t Give Up On That Dog” is one such person.  Her writing reveals her attitude and love of dogs. (Google her too!)  She sees her dog differently than most people.  Maybe she’s more empathetic than most, but she has the mindset to do great things.

Sadly, there are still those that MILITANTLY stay with the methods and prejudices that have become “State of the Art”.  They rely entirely on “Science”, and are overly impressed with “Degree’s”.  Going to a University to understand relationships between living creatures, is like learning to fly an airplane by reading a magazine.  It can’t be done.  Learning to understand how a canine thinks and learns by studying a whale, is also deluded by the frippery of Higher Education.  The wisest and smartest dog trainers/behaviorist are those that live  with dogs everyday.  At Home.  At the office.  At play.  In the whelping suite. Most  of those people look past the latest book published about “Dog Training.”

I have only started to develop “Nut’s and Bolt’s” practice to the “Communicative Approach.  I do know, that the subtleties of Canine Body language”, are out there everyday to be observed.

I have decided to to split this into another post…What I’ll call the “Communicative Approach” needs to be given more detail apart from this post, and I’ll do just that.

“We need to talk Mom and Dad. I’ll Talk, and you listen!”




  1. Cannot wait for the rest of this piece! One of your very best!!!

  2. angiewinters says:

    Thank you, Robert. I so appreciate your confidence in my work communicating with dogs! Your gift at communicating to people….about dogs……cannot be exaggerated. Great post……