Doing More with Less…by Observing: The Communicative Approach.

Posted: August 25, 2012 in At Home with dogs., Communicative Approach Training & Theory, Dog Training, Dog training Research & Development, Dog-Speak", German Shepherd

“Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful.  The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood”-   Leonardo Da Vinci   1503

I wonder how many other Canine writers are inspired by  Il Padrone sé, Leonardo Da Vinci…To no small degree, the Maestro is responsible for my investigation into the Communicative Approach with my dogs.  The reason being is that “Observation” is the most crucial element of C.A.T.T.  There has arguably never been an “Observer” the like of Leonardo.  Just a brief investigation into the “notebooks”, paintings, drawings, and plans of the man show that he had extraordinary skills to really “see” into the natural world, and extrapolate and explain them.  He was interested in everything, and was able to make connections to everything else, drawing the world, and all of creation, into symbiosis.   The above quote is more than half a millennium old, and yet strikes at the very heart of my subject.  To “speak” dog, you must be an observer of dogs.  This is a skill that you can develop, but it takes time and patience.  But the effort is worthy…

In writing this, I initially thought that the first important feature of the Communicative Approach was to, “Train and Interact with your dog when you are calm and focused”.  However,  it soon proved that not only was “Observation” more important to the learning process, it actually helped develop a “Calmer, more Focused” approach.  Therefore, the order switched itself in practice.  Fine, that’s a very organic way of learning that Leonardo would have approved of…But how do you learn observation?


As a trailing/tracking dog handler, I’ve thought about this a lot.  The smallest detail will often bring the largest clues. So my first advice to becoming observant is this:  FOCUS on details in everyday life.  If you find yourself daydreaming, you’ve lost focus.  Start by focusing on things 15 to 30 yards away.  Sit in a parking lot in your car and notice how many people you see.  What color cars are driving by.  How many empty parking spots are there.  How many cars have a sunroof.  Are there any broken windshields to be seen?  This can easily be turned into a game with family anywhere.  Children love to out-play their parents, and this is a game where they easily do this.  They notice EVERYTHING when it involves a game format.  (One note of import: When I do these exercises, I take notes.  It helps keep me focused on the subject, and also assists in remembering my observations. Just a suggestion)

   I  personally know a man who instructs Christian Missionaries before they go to assignments worldwide.  Observation is a valuable skill that they are taught during their training.  It serves them in several ways.  In countries that are, shall we say, less “stable”, it helps them stay out of dangerous situations.  It helps them “read” people who may not speak english…

  With your dog, observe his “reactions” to everything.  Does a certain action from you or elsewhere cause him to “Blink” his eyes?  Allow his tongue to protrude from his mouth?  Flatten his ears back?  Yawn?  Move backwards?  Stand on his toes?  Flick one ear?  Bark?  Close his eyes?  Open his eyes wider? Smile?  Drool? Whine?  Turn his head away from you?  These and a thousand other unique reactions can be used as communicators.  But YOU must make the effort to see them, and then interpret what they mean. 

Another game that you can play with Observation is discovering what depth you can reach within a certain subject.  As an example, consider Da Vinci’s construction of a common birds feather.  Leo  could have noticed the Vane, Shaft, and shape of the feather.  But he went beyond, to see the interconnecting Barbules, Barbs, and the action of air movement over the feather.  he drew this in exacting detail.   He started with the proverbial “big picture”, and noticed more and more detail with focus.

Try this with your dog.  When you are working, playing, or feeding your dog, first notice his overall appearance.  The shape of his body, position of his feet, his ears, his tail.  Then work your way in.  Is his back arched? Straight? Ears pricked or flattened?  Tail down? Wagging? Spinning like an airplane propeller?  Are his hackles raised?  You can continue to find more and more detail on your own.  Your dog is living creature with a personality, and his actions will be equally unique.

  Another way to learn observation, is to change your perspective.  Look at things from a different angle.  Lay on the floor, stand on a chair or ladder.  Allow your dog to realize that you’re staring at him, then hide on him and watch him without the distraction of your attention. 

  Something that I doubt Leonardo had to fight:  Do NOT Multi-task when practicing this skill.  Turn off the cell phone, the television, i-pods, i-pads, Kindle’s, Wii systems, laptops.  If it buzzes, beeps, or plays sound or pictures, TURN IT OFF.  Later on, as your skill improves and you can fend off distractions, then you can turn all that crap back on.  In fact, with time and effort, Observation becomes an unwitting skill.  You’ll do it when you wake up, and it’ll turn off while you sleep. 

One more technique for learning ObservationSlow Down.   Think.  React if you must.  We live in the information age when facts, figures, photo’s, and statistics fly at us in huge flocks every minute of the day.  Our brains just aren’t truly wired for that phenomenon.  Take your time watching things, asking questions, drawing conclusions.  In fact, Observation is not about “drawing conclusions”, so don’t try it!  Just SEE what you are watching.  I’m not saying that you need to go into a trance…That’s meta-physics, and has no part in the C.A.T.T. program.  As evidence of what I’m saying, I offer the following story of a failure on my part. 

  I was working on earning my Private Pilots licence.  I was privileged to learn in a very nicely outfitted Cessna Skyhawk.  Electronically, it had every bell and whistle.  Navigation to the moon would have been a cinch.  The avionics in the plane was also state of the art.  Every gauge and dial you can imagine…I had technical information coming at me from  every square inch of that cockpit.  I was mesmerized.  One day, we (My instructor and I) were shooting “Touch-and-Go’s” in a stiff cross-wind.  These can be tricky… and deadly.  My instructor, John, had a mantra.  “First, FLY THE PLANE”.  he said it everyday to students.  Multiple times.

  Anyway, on one attempt, I became very concerned with my Altimeter, and Artificial Horizon.  Well, this caused me to NOT look out the windscreen…The crosswind was moving me off course of the runway.  I would have landed on a bumpy grass area alongside the runway had John not pulled back the yoke and aborted my landing.  Multi-Tasking is not the panacea that society would convince you that it is.  After that day, I learned to land the plane by looking out the side window and ignoring the bells and whistles.  Learning any skill benefits from a simple approach.  “Fly The Plane” means to do the simple tasks that are necessary for success.  Ignore the frills until you can do the basics flawlessly, without effort, automatically.  Had I been Observant that day, it would have saved me several extra hours of practice for my licence.

  Next, I’ll start developing the need to work with your dog when you are calm, and focused.  Thanks for reading!!!

Leonardo Da Vinci


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